Consortium seeks greater resources for data interoperability

A Senate bill authorizing $3.3 billion over five years to assist public safety agencies in making their communications systems compatible should be focused not just on voice but on data as well, the chairman of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium urged this week.

Congress should make a priority of data interoperability, rather than solely focusing on achieving interoperability for first-responder radio systems with voice communication, chairman Matt Walton said in an interview.

'While radios are important, there needs to be a clear and well-articulated mandate for the Homeland Security Department to address data interoperability,' Walton said. 'There must be funding and accountability specifically focused on that.'

Data interoperability refers to the capability of first responders to send databases, photographs, text messages and other files seamlessly to each other across different computer systems and applications.

The consortium was formed by public, nonprofit and industry executives in 2002 to advocate open standards for emergency data communications. The group signed a memorandum of understanding with the Homeland Security Department in January to work jointly on such standards, which are being written in Extensible Markup Language.

The Assure Emergency and Interoperable Communications for First Responders Act of 2005, S 1725, co-sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), was approved on a voice vote by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee yesterday. It authorizes $400 million in 2006, and increases to $1 billion by 2010, for grants to improve emergency communications capabilities and to achieve 'statewide, regional, national and, where appropriate, international interoperability.'

Incompatible radio systems, resulting in the inability of police and fire officials to communicate with each other and with agencies in nearby communities, have been a problem for decades and have become a topic of intense congressional concern since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is widely believed that firefighters at the World Trade Center were hampered in their evacuation by their inability to communicate with police radios.

Although voice interoperability is critical, Walton said, data interoperability also should be a priority to allow first responders to share critical information and text messages with each other.

'Until now the debate about interoperability, in public and in Congress, has been about voice. We emphatically believe that there is an equal or greater need for interoperability for data,' said Walton, who is also vice chairman of E Team Inc., an incident management software firm in Irvine, Calif.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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