Public safety communications still a work in progress, Chertoff says

Eight years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, there has been significant progress made toward improving first-responder communications, but there is still a lot of distance to cover, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff told public safety officials today.

Increased funding to state and local governments, advances in radio technology and the release of the Homeland Security Department’s National Emergency Communications Plan, which outlines a strategy to improve public safety communications throughout the nation, have all contributed to more effective communications among various jurisdictions, Chertoff said.

However, Chertoff expressed disappointment that the issue of designating more radio spectrum for public safety use has not been resolved and that more jurisdictions have not adopted governance and a standardized language for law enforcement and public safety personnel across the country to describe events and incidents during an emergency.

Chertoff, now chairman and managing principal of the Chertoff Group, spoke on a panel about tactical communications and interoperability among firefighters, law enforcement, public officials and other first responders at the National Press Club in Washington. John Vaughan, senior vice president of public safety communications for Harris Corp. joined him on the panel.

Chertoff said that he is not one to say that there hasn’t been progress. However, “I will say it is disappointing that we haven’t reached a decision point on the dedicated spectrum and haven’t moved forward on interoperability and basic interoperability in some parts of the country,” he said.

“Training remains a critical element,” Chertoff added. "There are still too many responders who even if they get the equipment wouldn’t know how to use it.”

Achieving interoperability will require investment and effort because with every advance in technology there is a corresponding burden on government to keep up with what’s going on, he said. This means agencies and industry should look at more migratory technology that connects older systems with emerging technology. This might also entail a new business model in which organizations don’t buy technology and keep it until it is obsolete. Rather, users pay for a service and as equipment changes over time they swap it out and pay for use of the product rather than the product itself.

Sometimes technology can hamper effective communications. For example, an increase in cell phone use can cripple E-911 service during a disaster or incident.

“Really, it is the use of voice-over-internet, wireless and wired networks that present enormous challenges to E-911 dispatchers,” said Harris’ Vaughan. “You can see a solution with certain technology called GPS [Global Positioning Systems]."

GPS has to be tied into voice over IP so that cell phones are tagged with a geo-location to identify where a person who needs help is located, he said. But that infrastructure involves privacy issues--another concern that still needs to be resolved, he said.

The potential of emerging cyberattacks can also have an impact on local and regional governments, and there is a question of what role their emergency management agencies should play.

When it comes to planning for emergencies that might stem from cyberattacks on infrastructure, Chertoff acknowledged that “the role of state and local authorities is less clear.” He added that “the federal government and a band of private sector groups” still need to develop an emergency response plan “on a national level” that factored in the possibility of a cyber attack.

Wyatt Kash contributed to this story

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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