Chris Essid is a man on a mission. As the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications, Essid is a driving force behind the effort to establish interoperable communications between first responders from coast to coast.

So far, the mission is going well. For instance, when the OEC was established a little more than two years ago, there were only about a half-dozen statewide interoperability coordinators. Today there are 44 full-time coordinators, and many of the states that don’t have full-time coordinators have part-timers. In addition, every state and territory — 56 in all — has an interoperability governance committee.

There’s more good news regarding governance, Essid said. The DHS is in the process of hiring regional coordinators, one for each of the 10 FEMA districts, who will work to help the states collaborate with one another, and to help them further refine their statewide communications interoperability plans (SCIPs), which are based on standardized criteria defined by the OEC’s national communications plan. All 56 states and territories currently have an SCIP, Essid said.

The “dramatic” growth in interoperability coordinators and committees, as well as the resultant boost in collaborative efforts, already is paying big dividends, according to Essid. “They’re able to share lessons learned and they don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Indeed, the much stronger governance infrastructure that’s now in place is a crucial building block toward the elusive goal of nationwide interoperable communications, according to Essid.

“The problem has not been technology, it has been coordination,” he said. “In fact, it’s only been about 10% technology and 90% coordination.”

The underlying cause for the historic lack of regional coordination regarding public-safety communications largely is cultural, Essid said. Simply put, police and fire chiefs — and the communications officers who answer to them — have a decades-old tendency to act out of self-preservation. “Any kind of cultural change is very difficult to achieve, but especially in public safety. It’s understandable. They deal with life-and-death situations every day, and they’re very [reluctant] to put their communications into anyone else’s hands.”

But agencies are finding that self-preservation and self-sufficiency don’t mesh in the current economic climate. “There’s not the funding for everyone to go out and buy their own thing anymore. There never really was, but there’s less of it today than there’s ever been,” Essid said. “We have to realize efficiencies and economies of scale, and the only way to do that is to work together and work the problem as a whole. How many billions of dollars could be saved if we could break down the barriers that stop people from working together?”

He added that agencies that work together stand a greater chance of getting their projects funded. “The days of going it alone, and not caring about what your neighbors are doing, hopefully are over,” he said.