LAS VEGAS--Last week in this space I suggested that public safety spend less time complaining about the dearth of interoperable communications nationwide and devote greater effort to achieving region-wide consensus on interoperability strategies. Yesterday, representatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Project SAFECOM, speaking during an educational session at IWCE 2005 here, made the same suggestion.

Solving the interoperability puzzle requires a holistic approach, said Juan Otero, SAFECOM deputy director, who identified limited and fragmented planning by public-safety agencies on the state and local level as one of the key challenges that must be addressed to achieve interoperability.

"This is the big-ticket item for the federal government in terms of helping state and local officials address this issue," Otero said.

Accordingly, SAFECOM has placed heavy emphasis on "coordinated grant guidance," an effort designed to bring "order and sense" to the grant solicitation process and to encourage public safety to speak with one voice on a regional level. The DHS feels so strongly about the need for regional consensus that it has made it a criterion for grant approval. The primary reason is that 90% of the public-safety communications infrastructure resides at the state and local level.

"It's something that has to happen at the local level--that's where the action is," Otero said. "With the carrot-and-stick approach to the money, we've given people a big incentive to come to the table and deal with this together."

The problem is that they're not coming to the table fast enough, something that Otero acknowledged. However, he said he was pleased with the progress SAFECOM has made in a relatively short period of time, and he stressed patience.

"This is a long-term problem--we're not going to fix it in 20 days," he said. "It took us 50 years to get into this; it's going to take us a long time to get out of it."

He acknowledged that a coordinated effort would require a dramatic change in thinking amongst public-safety officials, who traditionally have thought parochially, but said the change already is occurring as public safety is beginning to understand that the feds don't have all the answers.

When I suggested that time is a luxury public safety no longer has in a post-9/11 world, when the next terrorist attack could be just around the corner, Otero responded with a tired smile.

"I think we're moving on the right track to address this issue," he said.

I think so, too. It would be nice, however, if SAFECOM could figure out a way to accelerate the process. If the lure of federal grant money isn't enough to get public-safety officials to set aside their agendas and work toward common goals, I wonder what it will take.

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