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First-responder agencies are making some progress on interoperability
Despite some obvious shortcomings that remain to be corrected, the nation's local governments have made significant progress in the last five years
toward creating interoperable communications systems for their emergency response agencies.
The 9/11 Commission identified communications for first responders as a primary concern in the wake of the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and on the Pentagon.
Although police, fire and emergency medical departments need to cooperate during emergencies, they typically rely on legacy communications systems built with little thought to interoperability. Communications between neighboring jurisdictions can be an even bigger problem.
The Homeland Security Department has awarded $2.9 billion in grants since 2003 to help state and local governments solve this problem.
That much still remains to be done has been underscored in subsequent disasters, including Hurricane Katrina.
But a recent DHS study finds that the country's 75 largest urban and metro areas now have plans in place to let police, fire and emergency medical departments talk to each other across agency lines during a crisis.
It probably comes as no great surprise that the challenges in fully implementing these plans are not primarily technical, but procedural.
'The technology exists to permit interoperable communications, but solutions are often not available regionally and are far from seamless in many areas,' said the DHS report.
'Continued training on available technical solutions and procedures for their use is critical to operational success.'
The report accompanied the release of scorecards this month grading each urban or metro area on its progress toward interoperability.
Creation of a tactical interoperable communications plan was a requirement for communities receiving Homeland Security communications grants.
All 75 metro and urban areas have completed a plan and tested it to ensure that departments can actually communicate with each other when they need to.
Solutions to allow cross-agency chatter range from the simple expedient of swapping radios to sharing standards-based networks that let departments exchange voice, video and data.
The most common kinds of equipment used to connect disparate systems are fixed gateways or console patches. DHS found that problems were encountered when agencies use more complicated mobile gateways. The problems weren't the gateways, but the users.
'Evaluators reported a lack of technical familiarity with mobile gateways in a number of exercises, which is consistent with the fact that the frequency of gateway use varies greatly across areas,' the report noted.
Overall, DHS found that the greatest need in making interoperable communications a working reality is strong leadership for putting standard operating
procedures into place and then providing the training and regular exercises to keep them working.
DHS will use its scorecards to help focus future communications grants and will act as a clearinghouse for best practices and lessons learned by communities implementing interoperable systems.
But challenges in knitting together first-responder networks will continue for the foreseeable future.
Regional cross-jurisdictional systems are the next hurdle, and Statewide Interoperable Communications Plans are required by the end of the year for states receiving DHS grants.