Homeland Security starting over with Safecom

CIO Steve Cooper says the first priority of Homeland Security's IT leaders is to 'do no harm.'

Henrik G. DeGyor

'There isn't enough money to solve this problem, but there's enough money to begin to solve this problem,' the department's Rose Parkes says.

Henrik G. DeGyor

With more than 53,000 public-safety groups using largely incompatible radio networks, Project Safecom was a long shot to finish in the 18- to 24-month time frame the Office of Management and Budget laid out.

The depth and difficulty of such an undertaking has given way to officials at the Homeland Security Department taking a new direction with the project. The agency is reconstituting Safecom and moving it under its Science and Technology Directorate.

The project is one of many ambitious efforts at the fledgling department. With so many programs in the works, the first priority of the department's IT leaders is to 'do no harm,' CIO Steve Cooper said.

It's not an easy process, Cooper said during a keynote this month at FOSE 2003 in Washington. He likened integrating the systems of the department's 22 component agencies to changing the tires of a car while it's traveling 70 miles an hour. And the systems must truly be integrated, not simply placed separately under one roof, he said.

Safecom is a particularly daunting integration and engineering project, whose goal is to connect wireless first-response systems across federal, state and local agencies.

'We are coming at this in a very different way than I think Safecom has been viewed in the past,' Cooper said. 'We listened to the constituency that we were supposed to be serving'the state and local governments and first responders. We will come at this as a systems engineering challenge.'
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The department is the third managing partner of the project, which started with the Treasury Department, then in October was moved to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Cooper also said there will be a new project manager.

The most recent manager, Susan Moore, who was working at Homeland Security on detail, has returned to the Agriculture Department.

'If you look backwards, we have spent a fair amount of money, and I don't know if we got a lot to show for it,' Cooper said. 'Continuing things the same way we have been doing it doesn't make a lot of sense.'

Next stop: IT office

Cooper said the Science and Technology Directorate was the logical choice because its job is to manage early stages of projects. When the project moves into the mainstream, the IT office will take over the operation and maintenance, he said.

The department will set up a program office and name a new project manager this month, Cooper said. His office will work with Science and Technology to help reshape the program.

Rose Parkes, CIO for the department's Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, said the Safecom project is intended to establish a basic level of information sharing among first responders.

'There isn't enough money to solve this problem,' Parkes said, 'but there is enough money to begin to solve this problem.'

Homeland Security and the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services Program plan to issue grants totaling $50 million this year to support information among first responders at disaster scenes and other incidents.

The directorate also is fostering information sharing via its Disaster Management Interoperability Services program, which provides a basic toolkit of emergency response applications to state, local and tribal organizations. So far, 19 states have adopted DMI Services, Parkes said.

DMI Services has several tools, including a geographic information system, an instant messaging tool and an incident log. The program is based on the Army Knowledge Online system, a much larger application that links hundreds of thousands of service members and Pentagon employees.

Meanwhile, technology officials from throughout the department are working to get other systems up and running. A team of IT leaders is making sure systems work for users while fitting them into an enterprise architecture. They also are determining whether systems overlap and which might need eliminating.

'Whatever we do must be in an architected manner,' Cooper said. 'We have started the process to establish a national homeland security architecture.'

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