Interoperability is a popular buzz-word in Washington, where policymakers are all too familiar with stories of communications breakdowns between public-safety agencies, particularly those surrounding the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

As detailed in the recently released 9/11 Commission report, the lives of many New York firefighters could have been saved if the police and fire departments had been able to talk to each other via their radio networks. Because of this and other examples, voice-interoperability initiatives for first responders have become a priority at all levels of government and the focal point of legislation and lobbying.

But the same degree of urgency and attention is not present on the data side of the interoperability equation, according to Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute (IJIS), a non-profit corporation formed to help state and local governments develop ways to share law-enforcement and justice information.

“We have convinced people and Congress that voice interoperability is important, and there are programs and grants targeted to meet that need,” Wormeli said. “But there's no similar program for data sharing.”

But that doesn't mean the quest for data interoperability has stagnated. Indeed, public-safety and industry vendors have been laying the groundwork for data interoperability for years, beginning with improving the system used to update the national criminal information database maintained by the FBI. Although accessed by law-enforcement officials throughout the country, the database depended on updates from local and state agencies. This support system was spotty at best, particularly in some rural states, but even highly populated areas suffered some embarrassing snafus.

“In the [Washington-area] sniper case, there were arrests of those guys, but there was no record of those arrests in the database, so they didn't show up when you ran a query,” Wormeli said.

Not only was the 60% accuracy rate of the database a cause for concern — much of the information in the database could not be used publicly. Arrest records of individuals cannot be disseminated to the public without knowing the cases' dispositions — i.e., whether a court found the accused guilty or innocent — and the established system did not make it easy for courts to update records in the national database.

With this in mind, IJIS help spearhead the adoption of a single interface language for all public-safety and justice agencies based on XML. Developed by Georgia Tech, Global Justice XML has become the data model for interoperability, although Wormeli is careful not to call it a standard.

“The Justice Department has said, ‘If you're going to use a model to interoperate, you're going to use this,” Wormeli said. “You can extend it for local purposes, but you have to start here.”

Sharing of criminal background information is an important starting point for Global Justice XML, the tool, according to Chris Maloney, CEO of CAD vendor TriTech Soft-ware Systems, who added that the tool also is being touted as a foundation for a number of data-sharing initiatives.

“I think the whole impetus was to share criminal information,” Maloney said. “For instance, the INS had that watch list but didn't share it with anybody before 9/11. If the FBI had had that watch list, they might have had a better chance to stop it.”

Maloney's company is in-volved in another promising data-sharing effort: an attempt to let myriad jurisdictions access the wealth of information stored in computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems.

Currently, most CAD systems are proprietary and tailored to suit the needs of the customer — circumstances that prevent seamless interoperability and tend to drive the costs of CAD systems higher than they need to be, Maloney said.

Instead, an IJIS-led group of 120 CAD vendors is developing a data model that will provide enough standardization to let the CAD system information be shared be-tween jurisdictions.

The benefits of such interoper-ability could be dramatic. For instance, if an incident occurs on or near the border between two or more jurisdictions, the initial call for assistance may be made to the wrong jurisdiction. In many cases today, the information for the 911 call would have to be processed in one jurisdiction and then called to the appropriate entity, where the process essentially would be repeated between the dispatchers, at a loss of potentially valuable time.

If CAD systems are able to talk to one another, the information can be transmitted quickly between jurisdictions at the press of a button — without the risk of introducing new errors as a result of a typing error or a misunderstanding of a relayed message. It certainly beats the alter-native, according to Glen Nash, senior telecommunications engineer in the telecommunications division of the state of California's department of general services.

“To listen [to a call for help], key the information, then call someone else who has to listen and rekey … is not an efficient way to exchange information,” Nash said.

Indeed, good data interoperability means “less work for everyone” while improving efficiencies, according to Maloney. For instance, some adjacent jurisdictions in San Diego with reciprocal-aid agreements that use TriTech's system are able to see available resources — a fire engine or police vehicle — that may be closer to an incident on a jurisdictional boundary than any resources available within the jurisdiction that received the call.

Maybe the best news for public-safety officials is that the benefits of interoperable CAD systems may not be accompanied by increased costs. In fact, interoperable CAD systems could cost less than the highly customized proprietary systems that are commonplace today, Maloney said.

“It's so incredibly labor-intensive [today] because it's so customized,” he said. “And the last thing we want to do is customized work. There's more margin when there's a boiler plate … and more value to the customers when their systems can talk to each other.”

By using the Global Justice XML foundation, the hope is that others outside the traditional public-safety circle can participate in the process. Nash said alarm-system companies and roadside-assistance systems such as OnStar are working to integrate their database systems with those of public-safety entities.

Of course, this information can be transmitted even more efficiently if the proper infrastructure is in place, such as broadband wireless capabilities that allow digital pictures, building plans, fingerprint images or even sur-veillance video to be sent to or from a first responder's vehicle in real time.

“If you get a 13-page criminal history on a suspect and have to have a dispatcher read it over the radio, you're not making the best use of your time and resources,” Wormeli said.

Of course, broadband wireless is not part of every public-safety network today, but the prospects of it becoming more commonplace are improving constantly with technical innovations and as the FCC continues to allocate more spectrum for public-safety purposes.

Nash said officials have been particularly focused on the prospects of leveraging broadband capabilities since the FCC allocated 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for public-safety uses. However, initial discussions “have raised more questions than answers” as operational realities are considered, he said.

For instance, sending data and pictures to a two-man police squad car may enhance efficiencies, but doing the same thing with a one-man car could be a distraction that creates a traffic hazard, Nash said. And keeping a wireless data system free from hackers is always a concern.

“How do you authenticate who the user is? How do you determine their rights and what they can access? How do you protect the system from hackers while leaving it open enough for someone who is a valid visitor from another entity?” Nash said. “We really don't have a lot of experience doing that. It's all so new that we're not sure what all the pluses and minuses are.”

But even Nash acknowledges the “great possibilities” offered by broadband wireless networks and interoperable data systems, particularly when a large incident occurs.

In such situations, first responders from surrounding areas quickly travel to the site of the incident, and many times, the incident commander has little or no familiarity with the personnel or equipment on board the emergency vehicle, particularly when it's from another jurisdiction — information that's available in many CAD systems, Maloney said. Even the training the personnel have received and any special capabilities they might possess can be included in some systems.

David Thompson, vice president of marketing for PacketHop, said his company's software-based, mobile ad hoc network solution allows such information to be displayed graphically for an incident commander, but “the information doesn't get in there by itself.” The ability to provision a user in a PacketHop infrastructureless network built “on the fly” would enhance an already robust system, he said.

In addition, the information would be accessible without needing to acquire it via voice radios, enabling precious capacity on that system to be used solely for operational purposes. The result would be the best scenario for an incident commander in the chaotic environment of a large-scale emergency — a sense of order, as much voice capacity as the spectrum will allow and access to the capabilities of all first responders at a given scene.

“Imagine a big Risk game with all the pieces on the board — that's what we want it to be like for the incident commander,” Maloney said. “In the field, we want to make it so you can see all the pieces on the board and the resources available, regardless whose jurisdiction they fall in or where they came from.”

These advanced capabilities probably are still years away on a widespread basis, especially if standards debates for 4.9 GHz equipment and spectrum for 700 MHz slow the adoption of wireless broadband. Meanwhile, the non-technical chore of getting public-safety entities to adopt the same terminology — a necessity for any interoperable solution — must be resolved, according to Vincent Stile, former president of APCO.

“Whether it's voice or data, interoperability starts at home; then, we work it out between agencies,” Stile said. “There's a lot of work ahead of us.”

In addition, finding money for upgraded CAD systems is never easy, even if prices drop.

“The problem is how much money will be available to be spent on this,” Maloney said. “After we get a working data model, that's probably as far as the vendor community can go without customers being willing to pay for it.”

Wormeli echoed this sentiment.

“Money is a very, very big impediment to [data-interoperability] projects,” Wormeli said. “The DOJ budget has been getting cut the last few years, as more of it has been redirected to DHS. … Actually, Homeland Security has recognized the need for data interoperability, but that hasn't always been the case for the states that are administering the funds.”

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