The nationwide progress in interoperability for the emergency-response community has been significant since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opened its doors in early 2003. Two-way technological capabilities have improved significantly, communication methodologies have been developed further, and the path to future progress has become better defined.

With this progress, the information-sharing needs of emergency responders have become more specified. The term interoperability has expanded in such a way that it now resonates at the core of the latest technologies, systems, philosophies and structures needed to ensure that emergency responders are equipped with all of the information they need to effectively respond to incidents of any size. Today's definition of interoperability has expanded to include the connectivity of voice and data information.

Five program areas within the Command, Control and Interoperability Division (CCI) of DHS's Science and Technology Directorate — basic/futures research; cyber security; knowledge management tools; office for interoperability and compatibility; and reconnaissance, surveillance, and investigative technologies — are looking to meet today's interoperability needs by creating critical tools and methodologies to provide instantaneous voice and data communication capabilities. These tools help ensure that our nation's first responders have seamless, secure connectivity and information sharing, so as to be better prepared to identify, assess, prevent and minimize the impact of terrorist attacks and natural or manmade disasters.

Various initiatives are underway in all stages of development. Throughout each stage, the division works closely with those who will be directly using the end product — the boots on the ground. To ensure practitioners in the field have access to properly tested tools, CCI conducts pilots across the nation to test applicability, value and safety. These mid- to large-scale demonstrations provide the opportunity for participants to train with and field test products, solutions or technologies that they might use during real-life day-to-day operations and planned events.

Pilots long have been a key component of the division's work. They are vital to both the success of the final product as well as its credibility within the user community, because they demonstrate whether a product actually works in an operational environment. Because every jurisdiction, community, and geographic area in the United States has different needs and issues, CCI conducts pilots in as many different locations as necessary.

CCI currently is conducting pilots of several different technologies at various locations across the country, including multiband radio, the Critical Infrastructure Inspection Management System (CIIMS) and the Regional Information Sharing and Collaboration Program (RISCP).

Today, many emergency responders experience limited communications. Single-band radios commonly are identified as a cause of these limitations. In order to communicate with partner agencies, most emergency-response agencies must use several single-band radios. While some agencies opt to swap or share radios, others employ time-consuming methods to exchange information, including relaying messages through dispatchers or using runners to hand-carry messages.

To address these challenges, CCI partnered with industry to test and demonstrate a prototype multiband, multi-mode portable handheld radio capable of providing uninterrupted communications between emergency-response agencies operating in the public-safety radio bands. Similar in size and weight to existing portable radios with similar features, the multiband radio (MBR) distinguishes itself through its interoperable capabilities. The radio equips emergency responders with the unprecedented capability to communicate across the entire range of public-safety radio bands. To communicate with another agency, users simply program and select the assigned channel in use.

The MBR project has begun a series of long-term pilots across the nation. These pilots comprise the final phase of a three-part testing-and-evaluation process that also included laboratory testing and short-term demonstrations. During pilot testing, both technicians and users will participate in an introductory training session with DHS and manufacturer representatives. From that point forward, users test the radio in live situations using a test plan developed by pilot participants. Upon the completion of pilot testing, DHS representatives will use several mechanisms to gather data and anecdotal feedback from users to determine the capabilities and effectiveness of the technology. A final report with compiled results is expected in 2011.

In addition to these pilots, the MBR has been used and tested throughout the year at significant events such as the Presidential inauguration, the Kentucky Derby, and the 2010 Olympics. These events offered a unique opportunity for members of the emergency-response community to evaluate the capabilities and efficacy of the MBR technology in real-life situations.

The CIIMS also is in the pilot stage. In recent years, the Maryland State Police faced the challenge of conducting regular and systematic inspections of critical infrastructure in the state. Not only were these inspections resource-intensive, they also required the use of aerial surveillance. Further complicating matters, existing critical-infrastructure data had only been captured on paper; without digital copies, the state experienced a major roadblock in achieving data interoperability.

To address these needs, CCI partnered with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University to develop a tablet computer system that allows air crews to efficiently manage inspections of critical infrastructures and exchange relevant information in real time with partners in the field. CIIMS is a computer-based technology that enables inspection flight crews to more accurately locate and evaluate their target structures. Local law enforcement can use it to assign, monitor and document inspections as crews conduct reconnaissance patrols. The system is designed to be compatible with any law-enforcement aviation unit, and it is configurable for use by car, boat and foot patrols.

Following a successful pilot with the Maryland State Police, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) deployed CIIMS for use in 2008. Along with the standard CIIMS prototype, CCI is piloting a terrestrial version of the tool that can be used in emergency vehicles. This expansion of CIIMS provides an opportunity to further develop the system for operational use in large urban environments. During the 2009 and 2010 Academy Awards ceremonies, CIIMS was deployed in LAPD patrol cars, helicopters and command centers, and provided officials with images, inspection-related information and geographic coordinates that were exchanged between police resources on the ground.

The RISC is still another program currently in the pilot stage. It was created to improve interoperability and information sharing regarding threats to national security. RISC develops and evaluates cross-jurisdictional technologies, policies and processes to discover new and secure methods for disseminating threat information among local, tribal, state and federal entities.

These stakeholders, particularly in the local and state law-enforcement sectors, have critical short-term requirements for interagency and interregional information-sharing technology implementations. Speaking to these requirements, CCI specifically designed the RISC program initiatives to provide user-driven research and test capabilities that can disseminate and share information through rapid prototyping, experimentation and operational demonstrations of new processes and applications.

Local and state law-enforcement agencies are participating in RISC initiatives that focus on the development, deployment and evaluation of secure data exchange technologies intended for law-enforcement units. These technologies work to enhance both officer and public safety by providing up-to-date information (e.g., geospatial data) as quickly as possible. Through RISC initiatives, officers and investigators use technology — such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) — to access criminal histories, police reports and emergency data in real time. RISC wireless data exchange technologies enable law enforcement officials to save approximately 30 to 90 minutes during information sharing procedures.

RISC pilot initiatives currently are taking place across the nation. The cities of Seattle, San Diego, Tucson and Phoenix, as well as the New York Port Authority, have participated in RISC, along with many other regions. These information-sharing technologies also are impacting Arizona's southwest border area, where law-enforcement units are running secure data-exchange technologies on more than 350 PDAs. These technologies provide law enforcement officials with real-time access to critical law-enforcement information — such as criminal histories, mug shots, driver license photos and incident reports — when traditional vehicle-based systems are inaccessible. The International Justice and Public Safety Information Sharing Network (NLETS) also is deploying digital image exchange specifications to enable state and local enforcement personnel to query and retrieve driver's license, department of corrections and missing-person photos across state lines.

By working directly with practitioners to test prototype technologies, CCI is able to ensure that its solutions actually provide the needed value to those groups these technologies are intended to serve. Pilots can reveal a good deal about the product in question, including its strengths and, more importantly, its weaknesses. Drawing on practitioner input, CCI is able to properly address operational issues before distributing the solution to the wider stakeholder community. Ultimately, pilots enable DHS to create the strongest technology solution possible for those who need it the most.

David Boyd, Ph.D., is director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate Command, Control and Interoperability Division.

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