EDITOR'S DESK—Commentary

What's lacking in emergency response

For all the homeland security efforts that have evolved since the World Trade Center's twin towers came crashing down eight years ago, it was still sobering to see Ground Zero a couple of weeks ago — not so much for all the memories it brought back but for the gaping hole that remains and how much work that still needs to be done.

The same might be said for one of the signature issues that emerged from the 2001 terrorist attacks: the communications difficulties emergency responders had that day — and the continuing need not only for interoperable radio systems but also for interoperable information networks.

Former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, who was making the rounds in Washington in recent days, was fairly blunt in summing up the limited progress the nation has made in closing the interoperability gap.

On one hand, more than $1 billion in federal funds have been distributed to states and municipalities to invest in new gateways and other solutions that allow emergency response teams to communicate via different frequencies and equipment, he said.

Yet eight years later, the vision of a single emergency response radio frequency has yet to be achieved; governance issues remain unresolved in many locales; and for all the technology advances that have been made, interoperability remains broadly out of financial reach.

Similar to the limited view one sees peering through a portal in the construction barriers around Ground Zero, a glimpse of the task of building interoperable communications systems can be seen in a Homeland Security Department pilot program unveiled in July. The department's Science and Technology Directorate named 14 lead organizations from state, local and federal governments to evaluate multiband handheld radios that can function across multiple frequencies.

Although a number of regional initiatives are demonstrating progress in multimodal communications, as GCN reports in this issue, the DHS test suggests that on a number of levels, the nation still has a long way to go.
Not surprisingly, what keeps new technologies from reaching those who need it often has more to do with the way technology is purchased than the inevitable lack of funding.

To that end, Chertoff offers a pragmatic suggestion: Perhaps it’s time that first response and law enforcement organizations stopped buying equipment and instead started paying to use the equipment and services that would keep them up-to-date.

For first responders who recently traded in an old iPhone or BlackBerry for the newest releases, that’s a business model that ought to make a lot of sense — and an idea that deserves serious consideration.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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