Circling the wagons
State and local homeland security officials team on projects to counter funding uncertainty
Scott Appleby knows how to do more with less. He has to because, as director of emergency management and homeland security for Bridgeport, Conn., he’s seen the federal investment in his community’s safety drop dramatically.
Bridgeport got $938,000 in federal homeland security grants in 2004, and only $136,860 in 2006, the most recent year for which figures are available. And Appleby is not alone. After reaching a peak of $2.9 billion in 2004, grants to state and local governments dropped to $1.8 billion last year.
So local officials have devised new strategies to keep essential services in place. Rather than halt or delay important projects in the face of such cutbacks, Bridgeport joined forces in 2007 with first responders and related agencies from 13 surrounding municipalities. The effort will soon result in a regional communications system that will serve a wide range of public agencies.
“When a response is required, we’re the ones that will be sending our men and women into” harm’s way, Appleby said, adding that regional planning represents a more effective approach for homeland security. “It’s been very positive to focus on where the money is actually needed in our region,” he said.
Coastal Connecticut isn’t the only area finding strength in numbers for homeland security projects. Agencies elsewhere are joining with surrounding jurisdictions and commercial companies to fund large-scale technology projects, such as interoperable regional radio communications systems, and develop cybersecurity safeguards.
Such collaboration might become the new model for homeland security projects, but it also poses risks. Competing priorities or poorly assigned responsibilities can bog down projects with many partners, so officials who were accustomed to making their decisions must learn new ways to get things done.
“A lack of funds is going to drive agencies to collaborate more with partners to pool what funding they have on a regional basis,” said Arnold Bogis, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Research firm Input recently reported that 37 states and the District of Columbia are now bracing for a combined $31.2 billion in budget shortfalls by midyear. It added that a majority of city and county information technology managers expect their technology budgets will likely remain flat or decrease during the next two years, which will contribute to a decline in $30 billion in cumulative IT spending during the next five years.
When budget cuts hit state and local homeland security efforts, the first victims typically are cutting-edge technologies for first responders, sophisticated tools used in cross-agency fusion centers, or analytical software designed to scour raw data for terrorist plots, said Chris Dixon, Input's manager of state and local industry analysis.
Meanwhile, current and future shortfalls can also dilute the benefits of previous investments.
For example, earlier in this decade, Massachusetts bought custom trailers for mass casualty incidents that house supplies and equipment essential for helping first responders treat victims of a large-scale terrorist attack. But when the inspector general’s office recently tested the trailers' effectiveness, investigators uncovered several problems. The problems included basic things, such as knowing who carries the keys to individual trailers to lapses in regular maintenance needed to keep the equipment in working order.
“I wouldn’t be shocked to find a similar case elsewhere where specialized equipment has been purchased,” Bogis said. “With stresses on budgets, there isn’t the manpower to test it, practice with it and do the upkeep.”
Pooling resources is becoming an increasingly flexible option to overcoming budgetary stress. And some agencies, such as New York’s cybersecurity department, are looking beyond their borders for collaboration opportunities.
A cyberattack in one state could ripple effects into other jurisdictions, said William Pelgrin, director of New York state’s Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination. “We’re so interconnected, let’s all pull together and share,” he said.
As a result, New York teamed with Michigan and New Jersey on an application that helps local governments perform internal cybersecurity assessments. The application also will collect data — with personal information redacted — from local entities for aggregation and analysis by the state sponsors to identify and track cyberattacks as they unfold.
“This project goes across state lines," Pelgrin said. "It’s a very collaborative effort.”
New York also looked for partnering opportunities with the federal government to help meet the state’s deadline to encrypt the data stored on all mobile devices by the end of last year. Pelgrin worked with Karen Evans, the recently retired administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget, to piggyback on a federal procurement contract for the data-scrambling technology.
Pelgrin’s group negotiated a volume discount that saved the state $3 million, he said.
Meanwhile, the 14-town regional approach that Bridgeport belongs to pools DHS funds of about $1 million from the State Homeland Security Program and more than $1 million from the Urban Area Security Initiative, in addition to Bridgeport’s port security funding. The smaller communities, with only small grants to contribute, benefit from pooling resources. “They really couldn’t do enough with it” alone, Appleby said.
One of the first beneficiaries of regional collaboration was the emerging interoperable communications system, which received $6 million from the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services grants. The original goal was to enhance interoperability among Bridgeport’s various departments and then gradually add any outside support agencies that would likely respond if the city needed help. But in 2007, after the city was invited to apply for an additional COPS grant, it earmarked funds to broaden the use of the Fairfield County police frequency.
“The smaller towns may not have had the money to enhance that frequency, so that in itself has been part of the push to show that we are in this together, especially after what we saw [with communications breakdowns] during Katrina and Sept. 11,” Appleby said.
The region is now working to ensure that its fire and emergency medial services departments can use the same frequency.
Although regional collaboration makes intuitive sense, Appleby warned that it requires regular involvement by a wide range of officials to succeed. Nearly 75 agencies, including representatives from the area’s airports, railroads and ferryboat services, participate in various subgroups that meet at least once a month. It’s an admittedly large but necessary coalition, he said.
“You can’t have an entire committee filled with police, fire and EMS officials," he said. "We have to prioritize ourselves as a community, as a region, and not just as individual disciplines.”
To iron out conflicting requirements, the committee bases its decisions on a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis, he added. “If we start to diverge from that, it becomes a wish list.”
Wide representation can also help uncover new funding sources when federal funding alone falls short. “If a need doesn’t get met through [the] Homeland Security [Department], we look for another grant to go after,” Appleby said. “And if there isn’t a grant out there, but there’s an important project, we find ways for the towns to collaborate with $1,000 or $5,000 each to get the project up and running.”
As federal funds run dry, some regional groups are looking outside the public sector for aid. One model in this area cultivates increased collaboration among agencies and commercial companies where agencies agree to act as showcases for new installations in exchange for low-cost or no-cost technology and services.
The Piedmont Regional Voice over IP Pilot Project chose that route three years ago. The group is working to bring about interoperable communications among Virginia’s Pittsylvania County; Danville and South Boston & Halifax, Va.,; Virginia's state police; Caswell County, N.C.; and North Carolina's highway patrol. Planners wanted a communications system that serves law enforcement along with the public safety agencies and utilities in that area.
So participants partnered with Cisco Systems for communications equipment based on widely used IP standards rather than the proprietary technologies commonly used in older systems. If each entity uses equipment that supports the standard, departments can communicate with one another, even if they have equipment from different vendors.
Cisco offered the equipment and implementation services in return for using the group to show other public-sector agencies how the technology works outside controlled laboratory conditions. Cisco officials were particularly interested in the Piedmont project because participants spanned multiple levels of state, county and municipal agencies. In return for the communications gear and expertise, “we were able to give them a test bed and sweat equity,” said Maj. Dean Hairston, an officer with the Danville police and its Services Division commander when the project began.
The project's total cost could have risen to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but because of free technology and services from commercial vendors, the regional consortium expects to pay only a fraction of that when a system comes online later this year.
However, public/private partnerships can be frustrating, even if they save money. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Hairston said.
Problems arose when commercial customers took priority over the showcase group’s needs. Technical staff members sometimes weren't available to solve implementation problems, which led to scheduling difficulties and unmet milestones. Delays risk waning interest in launching a complex interoperability project when multiple agencies are involved, he said.
As a result, the system hasn’t been fully implemented after three years. Up to now, it’s been used primarily for demonstrations and nonemergencies. The project coordinators didn’t want people to rely with their lives “on a system that wasn’t 100 percent,” Hairston said.
Are the benefits of a commercial partnership enough to consider the approach? Hairston thinks so, but with some caveats. Instead of relying on a vendor’s project manager, he said it’s important to designate someone from the public sector in that role, or at a minimum, as a co-manager. This assures a single point of contact, and someone who can focus all of his or her energies on the program.
“You really need someone from the agency who’s the driving force to say, ‘Here is the schedule. I need this by this date,' " Hairston said.
Before finalizing an agreement, agencies also need to identify hidden costs and negotiate who will be responsible for them. It is much better to resolve those issues in the beginning than risk having them later derail the project.
Alan Joch is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.