Last week, I heard from Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, shortly after MRT Bulletin hit his e-mailbox. Halley was unhappy with something I wrote in this space and was seeking a chance for rebuttal.

I had written that the 911 sector was hoping to tap into the $1 billion that Congress has allocated to public safety for the purpose of advancing interoperable communications, which are sorely needed. A year ago, Halley himself had suggested the possibility, because many of the same agencies that would seek interoperability grants also would need public-safety answering point, or PSAP, upgrades. But he stressed adamantly when I spoke to him a couple of days ago that tapping into the interoperability grant program currently being administered by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, or NTIA, for 911 purposes is not the current position of NENA and its members, nor has it been for quite some time.

"I talked about the interoperability grant program several times [during last month's NENA annual conference in Orlando], but not once did I talk about it in terms of our members tapping into those funds for 911," he said. "That program clearly is about 700 MHz interoperability. That's fine. But NTIA has indicated they are encouraging a broader approach to interoperability that supports an inclusive planning process where all players are at the table, PSAPs included. We're in support of that."

Halley further opined that continuing to think of interoperability strictly in terms of radio communications would be "shortsighted." Rather, policymakers need to start looking at public-safety communications holistically, because of how the various components intertwine: the public interacts with emergency call centers, which interact with first responders at the scene, who interact with the public health community. "If we continue to look at them all as separate issues, we'll fail," he said. "We need to break away from the stovepipe mentality."

Technology also is a factor, according to Halley. "At one time, these sectors communicated using completely different platforms," he said. "Now, 911 and public-safety radio communications can both utilize the same IP-based emergency services networks, which federal policies and funding allocations should recognize." Indeed, the Next Generation 911 initiative that NENA is promoting envisions public-safety answering points capable of handling voice, data and video communications primarily using IP technologies. It should be noted, however, that there are many in the public-safety sector who remain unconvinced as to the reliability of IP voice systems.

Nevertheless, Halley couldn't be more correct in terms of the need for holistic thinking at all levels of policymaking. For years, public-safety communications has been hindered by its silo structure. That's beginning to change. Perhaps with NTIA leading the way, this much-needed and long overdue shift in thinking will occur sooner rather than later.

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