DHS needs outreach program for emergency responders, survey concludes

CDW-G says coordination would help fulfill National Emergency Communications Plan

The Homeland Security Department should launch an outreach initiative to ensure that state and local agencies are working toward the emergency management communications goals the agency outlined in the National Emergency Communications Plan, according to a report issued by CDW Government.

The 2009 Emergency Communications Report: Awareness and Progress toward the National Emergency Communications Plan benchmarks progress toward meeting DHS goals and identifies challenges and lessons learned to date.

The NECP, published in July 2008, recommends a multi-faceted approach to strengthening emergency communications capabilities nationwide, focusing on technology, coordination, governance, planning and training at all levels of government.

Just half of the 210 public-safety communications professionals responding to the CDW-G survey were aware of the NECP, but after being briefed about the plan, almost all thought it could address their communications challenges, said Houston Thomas, CDW-G’s public safety manager.

Significant progress has been made toward improving public safety communications since terrorism and natural disasters of the past eight years made it a higher priority, but there is still a lot of ground to cover, government and industry officials agree.

Emergency communications improvement is imperative: 28 percent said they experienced a communications challenge in the last year that hampered a response effort, and 61 percent said the ability to achieve and sustain seamless communications across jurisdictions and agencies is their top challenge to providing timely and effective emergency services, the report states.

After being briefed on NECP goals, most respondents think they will meet target timelines for significant incidents. For example, 53 percent anticipate meeting, or said they already have met, the NECP goal to achieve multi-jurisdiction response-level emergency communications for routine events within one hour. The deadline under the NECP is 2010 for high-risk urban areas and 2011 for low-risk areas.

Seventy-four percent have met or anticipate meeting response-level emergency communications for significant incidents within three hours, which the plan requires by 2013.

However, 55 percent of the respondents said it will be somewhat difficult to met the NECP goals, and another 21 percent said it would be very difficult. Training programs, improved network infrastructure and more collaboration hardware and software are needed for public safety agencies to meet their goals, they said.

Although the majority of the respondents are allocating staff and funds to improve emergency communications, half do not yet have a written plan to meet the NECP goals. CDW-G recommends that state and local agencies establish a written plan, including timeline and budget, to achieve NECP goals.

In addition, agencies should identify overlapping requirements, if possible, and share expenses with other local jurisdictions; identify the leader responsible for implementing a jurisdiction’s plan; and install the right equipment coupled with trained personnel and effective command chain processes. Also, they should establish multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction drills and institute statewide meetings to discuss lessons learned.

They need to also identify grants and stimulus funding, Thomas said. “It’s going to take training, investment in hardware and software and procedural development, and in some cases, spiritual development,” Thomas said.

Some of the investment can come from the funding sources listed in the report, he said, such as Operation Stonegarden Grant Program, Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program, State Homeland Security Program and Metropolitan Medical Response System.

“IT has to be in the center of everything here. It is really the highway that serves as the infrastructure for interoperability,” Thomas said.

And the focus can’t be just on achieving radio interoperability. “In the 21st century threat environment, data and video information transfer is just as challenging between agencies and just as important,” Thomas said.

CDW-G`s national online survey, conducted during August 2009, collected responses from 210 state and local emergency communications professionals in 41 states.

For a copy of the complete CDW-G Emergency Communications Report, visit http://www.cdwg.com/emergency.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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