Tactical interoperable communications among first-responder agencies has improved noticeably in recent years but considerable work remains to regionalize interoperability capabilities, according to a 179-page report released this week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

DHS made scorecard assessments of 75 urban and metropolitan areas in the county, based largely on exercises conducted in each area. Interoperability policies have been established in all of these areas and first-responder cooperation in the field is strong, but leadership often is not formalized and communications links between agencies need to be tested regularly, according to the report.

Reviews focused on the areas of governance, standard operating procedures and usage—key components of the SAFECOM interoperability model. Based on these criteria, the top ratings were given to areas surrounding Washington, D.C. (the National Capital Region); San Diego; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Columbus, Ohio; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Laramie County, Wyo. The lowest ratings were given to regions surrounding Chicago; Cleveland; Baton Rouge, La.; Mandan, N.D.; and American Samoa.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff emphasized the fact that the evaluations were based on regional interoperability—not just interoperability within the highest-profile jurisdiction in the region—citing the city of Chicago and the 128 municipalities in Cook County as an example.

“If you would look at the city of Chicago itself, it has interoperable communications … they do an excellent job of harnessing technology,” Chertoff said in a news briefing available on the DHS web site. “Cook County also has done an awful lot among its communities to establish interoperability. But what the scorecard identified was that these two entities—the city and the county—needed to come together and work more effectively as a unified whole to build interoperability across the entire region.”

DHS wants urban areas to use the scorecard assessments to identify and address shortcomings in their interoperable communications with the goal of having all 75 urban and metropolitan areas achieving “advanced” levels of interoperability during the next two years.

“In order to make this effort work, we're going to need to provide the money—and we will provide the money—we're going to need to have accountability—and we're going to demand 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.”

Since 2003, DHS has awarded $2.9 billion in funding to enhance state and local interoperable communications. Regional first-responder agencies would be wise to address shortcomings noted in the DHS scorecard when applying for future funding, Chertoff said.

“When the decision-making agency says, ‘This is important to us,’ that's a pretty good cue that you ought to focus on that when you're making a request to get money from the decision makers,” Chertoff said in a news briefing.