FEMA targets public-safety wireless stovepipes

To ensure interoperability and avoid stovepipes and duplicative efforts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will coordinate all of the government's emergency and first-response wireless communications.

FEMA will take over Project Safecom, one of the Office of Management and Budget's 24 e-government initiatives, FEMA CIO Ron Miller said.

The Treasury Department had been running the program to define the requirements and standards for a national voice and data wireless system for use in biohazard and natural disaster situations.

Three ongoing projects also will come under Project Safecom: a joint Treasury and Justice Department effort to provide interoperable land mobile radios for federal agents; the Public-Safety Wireless Network, another Treasury-Justice project; and the Commerce Department's National Wireless Communications and Infrastructure Program.

With related wireless projects sprouting throughout the government, OMB is working to merge common initiatives, said Mark Forman, OMB's associate director for IT and e-government.

In a letter to agencies running wireless projects, Forman issued a warning: Work together or OMB will use its authority under the Clinger-Cohen Act to force collaboration by reprogramming funds.

$1.7 billion duplicated

'There is approximately $1.7 billion in duplicative spending for wireless interoperability,' said Tom Ringer, homeland security coordinator in FEMA's CIO office and now project manager for Safecom.

Managers of the programs to be gathered under Safecom said they agree on the need to replace aging, incompatible communications systems used by federal, state and local public-safety agencies.

'Some of it is Smithsonian quality,' said Michael Duffy, director of the telecommunications services staff at Justice. Speaking at a recent Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association breakfast meeting, Duffy said the need for interoperability and voice-data convergence are driving the new infrastructure efforts.

Duffy said the new Justice-Treasury land mobile radio system is expected to start limited deployment by the end of next year. Equipment and integration contracts should be in place by December, he said.

To force wireless interoperability, it would help if the administration issued an executive order requiring agencies to include all available radio frequencies on their equipment, said Tom Wiesner, director of Treasury's Office of Wireless Programs.

In October, that will happen voluntarily in a pilot involving Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, Los Angeles County, Michigan and Virginia, he said.

The National Wireless Communications Infrastructure Program last month demonstrated interoperability among first-response agencies and the Coast Guard in Hawaii, said Charles E. Cape, the director of special projects and programs in the Commerce CIO's office. If deployed nationwide, he said, NWCIP would save $5 billion over four years compared to current wireless costs.

With public-safety wireless projects under one roof, the challenge now is meshing them. Duffy said so far there has been little communication among program officers. That will change, Ringer said.

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