DHS' emergency communications plan

The Homeland Security Department has released the first nationwide plan for establishing interoperable emergency communications among all branches of federal, state and local government.

The National Emergency Communications Plan offers guidance to first responder agencies but does not mandate specific technologies.

'It emphasizes the human element and cross-jurisdictional cooperation, going beyond simply buying new equipment," said Homeland Security Under Secretary Robert Jamison.

Difficulties in communications between first responders from different agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies have been identified again and again as a major problem in disaster response. Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the DHS Office of Emergency Communications was required to develop a comprehensive plan in cooperation with stakeholders from all levels of government and from the private sector.

'The purpose of the NECP is to promote the ability of emergency response providers and relevant government officials to continue to communicate in the event of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters and to ensure, accelerate, and attain interoperable emergency communications nationwide,' the plan says.

Prior to the completion of the plan, all 56 states and U.S. territories had developed Statewide Communication Interoperability Plans identifying near- and long-term initiatives for improving communications interoperability.

Although the plan does not mandate specific systems, does set out goals and timelines for establishing minimum levels of interoperability:
  1. By 2010, 90 percent of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) should be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.
  2. By 2011, 75 percent of non-UASI jurisdictions should be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.
  3. By 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions should be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours of a significant event.

To meet these goals, the NECP established seven objectives for improving emergency communications among emergency responders:
  1. Establish formal decision-making structures and clearly defined leadership roles to coordinate emergency communications capabilities.
  2. Federal emergency communications programs and initiatives should collaborate across agencies to achieve national goals.
  3. Emergency responders should employ common planning and operational protocols to effectively use resources and personnel.
  4. Emerging technologies should be integrated with current emergency communications capabilities using industry standards, research and development, and testing and evaluation.
  5. Emergency responders should share best practices for training and exercises, improving technical expertise and enhancing response capabilities.
  6. All levels of government should drive long-term advancements in emergency communications through integrated strategic planning procedures, appropriate resource allocations, and public-private partnerships.
  7. The nation should integrate preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery capabilities to communicate during emergencies.

Achieving these goals will take significant capital investment at all levels of government.

'DHS acknowledges there is no simple solution, or 'silver bullet,' for solving emergency communications challenges,' the plan says. 'The Nation does not have unlimited resources to address deficiencies in emergency communications. For that reason, the NECP will be used to identify and prioritize investments to move the Nation toward this vision.'

Assistance in funding will come from the department's new Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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