Public-safety communications promises to be a hot topic in Washington, D.C., during 2007, judging from the flurry of activity already seen in the form of federal reports, lobbying efforts and proposed legislation.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) got things started by issuing a 179-page report that included scorecard assessments of the tactical interoperable capabilities in 75 urban and metropolitan areas. While there has been improvement in this arena during recent years, additional work is needed to raise regional interoperability across the nation to an “advanced” level, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a news briefing.

“In order to make this effort work, we're going to need to provide the money; we're going to need to have accountability; and we're going to have to have metrics that enable us to measure performance,” Chertoff said. “And that's precisely what this scorecard allows us to do — build a set of metrics we can track and follow to make sure we get this job done.”

Reviews focused on the areas of governance, standard operating procedures and usage — key components of the SAFECOM interoperability model — that were based largely on exercises conducted in each area. One of the lowest-scoring areas was metropolitan Chicago, which includes 128 municipalities and was the largest urban area reviewed in the report.

Several key Chicago-area officials took exception to the report, noting the large number of jurisdictions — triple the number of any other area measured, with a couple of exceptions — and dubbing it an “apples to orange” comparison in a statement.

While Chertoff lauded the city of Chicago's ability to interoperate in his press conference, he noted that interoperability with surrounding areas — and between those areas — is lacking. Whether that level of interoperability is needed is a point of contention, said Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

“The city of Chicago is capable of making contact — through our 911 center or our unified communications vehicle — pretty much with any other agency it needs to. We can communicate with Evanston, Oak Park and Burbank,” Smith said. “A bigger technical challenge is helping those cities communicate with each other. While we think that is an admirable goal, we think, if Evanston needs help, they're going to call us before they call Oak Park.”

Chertoff indicated areas that address weaknesses cited in the DHS scorecard would be more likely to receive funding from the department. And more money is earmarked for interoperability, with $1 billion in interoperability grants required to be distributed nationwide by Sept. 30.

But that $1 billion in funding is being overseen by the Department of Commerce (DOC), not DHS. Given that the DOC does not have a procedure for disbursing such funds, a consortium of national public-safety organizations sent a letter to John Kneuer, the DOC's assistant secretary for communications and information, asking that the application process follow existing DHS grant guidelines to simplify matters.

“I don't believe [Commerce Department officials] have a significant disagreement with what we've said in the letter,” said Harlin McEwen, communications and technology committee chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). “[Kneuer] has acknowledged the letter and has said he wants to work with state and local organizations to make this happen.”

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced legislation that mirrors public safety's procedural appeal regarding the interoperability grants. This bill also would earmark $100 million of the $1 billion for pre-positioning of communications equipment that could be utilized quickly when a major incident or disaster occurs and an additional $43 million that would be used for 911 system enhancements, primarily the establishment of a national coordination office.

But the public-safety legislation receiving the most attention was the 9/11 Commission bill, which passed the House of Representatives easily as part of an early push by the new Democratic Party majority. Designed to authorize funding to meet unimplemented recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, the measure calls for increased screening of cargo entering the U.S., enhanced government information sharing and improved first responders' communications interoperability.

The bill authorizes the establishment of a grant program — something APCO favors, if the money is not taken from another public-safety resource, said Yucel Ors, APCO's legislative director.

“APCO has long supported a dedicated grant program and believes that this is the right direction,” Ors said. “We just want to make sure they don't rob Peter to pay Paul.”

But funding for the 9/11 Commission bill remains unclear, as the measure does not yet include any appropriations — something that is expected to be a source of considerable debate if the matter is passed by the Senate and reaches a conference committee.

But that might be looking too far ahead, as getting the 9/11 Commission legislation approved by the Senate could prove to be much more challenging than in the House, according to several sources.

One aspect of the House bill calls for distributing Homeland Security funds to areas of the country that are considered to be more likely targets of terrorist attacks, meaning more funding would be directed to more populous regions, which have more House members. But the notion of significantly cutting minimum Homeland Security funding to less-populous constituencies may not be received as favorably in the Senate, where every member represents rural constituents, to some degree.

“In general, there are some good things [in the 9/11 Commission bill],” McEwen said. “From my perspective, the question is what the Senate's going to do next. It's clear there are some fairly significant differences of opinion. I don't think it's going to get endorsed by the Senate in its entirety.”

Meanwhile, multiple Beltway sources indicate that interest in the Cyren Call proposal for a public/private partnership utilizing 30 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum that is scheduled to be auctioned in less than year has become a topic of increased discussion on Capitol Hill. While national public-safety organizations have expressed support for the concept, commercial wireless carriers are lobbying heavily in opposition. Sponsors for enabling legislation likely will be identified this month, according to sources.

DHS INTEROPERABILITY SCORECARD RESULTS
Cream of the crop
Washington, D.C. (National Capital Region) ϫ
San Diego ϫ
Minneapolis-St. Paul ϫ
Columbus, Ohio ϫ
Sioux Falls, S.D. ϫ
Laramie County, Wyo ϫ
Bottom of the barrel
Chicago ϫ
Cleveland ϫ
Baton Rouge, La. ϫ
Mandan, N.D. ϫ
American Samoa ϫ
Source: Department of Homeland Security