DHS to keep score on local comm plans

First responders say grades could help interoperability

Each urban area is going to get a scorecard, a public scorecard, that will identify gaps. ... The purpose of this is not to penalize people.'

'Michael Chertoff, DHS Secretary

Customs and Border Protection

Like security and e-government managers before them, radio interoperability managers in cities across the country soon will receive scorecards on their performance.

The Homeland Security Department plans to give public grades by the end of the year in a bid to pinpoint areas for improvement, secretary Michael Chertoff said in a speech last week.

Leaders in the first-responder community welcomed the announcement.

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police of Alexandria, Va., and a former police chief from Ithaca, N.Y., generally endorsed the scorecard program.

McEwen urged that DHS seek advice from first-responder organizations as it frames its criteria for evaluating city and regional interoperability programs.

Like other interoperability managers, McEwen cautioned that cities differ in their demographic characteristics, pre-existing radio communications infrastructures, regional government institutions and other factors that will make direct comparisons via the scorecards unreliable.

'The issue of governance and what are commonly referred to as turf battles are obstacles that need to be overcome,' McEwen said, echoing Chertoff's analysis. 'Those issues need to be assessed.'

Chertoff emphasized that technology for interoperability, while not perfect, is available now. He emphasized the need for governance plans that would cover issues such as protocols for which types of communications have priority in a disaster situation.

Governance plans also specify frequencies and communication codes for first responders. The state and local agencies also need to adopt training programs so first responders can use the equipment, Chertoff said.

DHS has issued model communications interoperability plans to states and spent more than $2.1 billion to fund state and local programs in the area, Chertoff said.

'By the end of this year, each urban area is going to get a scorecard, a public scorecard, that will identify gaps and help us to determine the improvements we need to make in the near term,' Chertoff said. 'The purpose of this is not to penalize people.'

DHS issued the prepared remarks for Chertoff's speech at the Tactical Interoperable Communications conference on May 8.

Chertoff said the department would issue its scorecard methodology this week, so states and cities could pinpoint areas in which they need to improve their interoperability programs. The scorecard would help states and cities judge the effectiveness of their existing DHS grants and shape future grant programs, he added.

Chertoff touted the progress of the RapidCom program, under which DHS has funded systems so incident managers in 10 of the country's highest-risk cities can communicate with one another and their command centers.

'So we've now expanded this RapidCom concept with our tactical interoperable communications plans, which are basically communications plans that would allow the 75 largest urban and multijurisdictional metropolitan areas to use this equipment to develop true interoperability,' Chertoff said.
'Now, I'm not going to oversell this,' Chertoff said of RapidCom. 'This is not a perfect solution, even the current technology. But it is workable, and it can be used and deployed today.'

RapidCom is a division of SAFECOM, the federal program to foster first-responder interoperability that has been operating since 2002.

While emergency radio interoperability remains a work in progress, SAFECOM has pushed it forward, according to Alan Caldwell, senior adviser for government relations of the International Association of Fire Chiefs of Fairfax, Va.

'In defense of DHS, on this interoperability issue they are doing a good job. The SAFECOM program is just about to issue a baseline study of the issue, and they have put together a toolkit to help state and local governments build interoperable communications systems.'

Chertoff cautioned that technology managers should strive to develop good systems that improve interoperable communications, rather than wait and strive for the best possible outcomes. 'The perfect is something to aspire to, but as we speak in this particular moment, we have to focus on the good,' Chertoff said.

Art Cleaves, Maine's homeland security director and director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency said, 'The secretary is providing the tools that are necessary for evaluation. Give me a grade, and if my grade is F, it draws attention to weaknesses in particular areas, so we can [home] in on and fix them.

'One of the best things DHS could do is to bring in an outside set of eyes [to evaluate the state's interoperable systems],' Cleaves added.

Chertoff's announcement of the new interoperability scorecard came as the Integrated Wireless Network Joint Program Office prepares to award a contract for the $2.5 billion project in the next few weeks, which likely will include an initial five-year contract followed by two additional five-year contracts.

The IWN office combines work by the Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security departments to build a new interoperable network for federal officials that would eventually link with state and local systems.

Because rolling out IWN in many cases will require the construction of new communications towers as well as the deployment of new standardized radios, it will not replace existing systems for several years.


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