Nearly a billion dollars of federal money was to be awarded by the end of last month under the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grants program to help state and local first responders improve communications and coordination during a disaster.

Federal, state and local agencies charged with helping to allocate the money have been hard at work developing specific methodologies to select viable and innovative communications projects, as well as conducting last-minute adjustments to their procedures based upon Congressional action in July.

The PSIC grant program originally was established in deficit reduction legislation enacted in 2005, according to Todd Sedmak, a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). However, Congress passed the Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007 in July, mandating changes to the program that in turn caused executive agencies to scramble to execute the required updates.

“We turned [changes] around in two weeks — that's going through the process here, at the White House, Office of Management and Budget, and DHS [Department of Homeland Security],” Sedmak said. “Everybody really worked hard to make that happen.”

Ultimately, the PSIC grants are being distributed by NTIA on a one-time basis with disbursements made to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and four U.S. territories. A DHS formula to determine risk that considers threats, vulnerabilities and consequences was used to allocate the money. The formula also relies upon existing interoperability and compatibility guidance from SAFECOM, the DHS communications program.

The grant program initially required projects to use only the 700 MHz frequency band, but Congress later allowed for investments in other public-safety spectrum bands. Other revisions included an amendment that set aside $75 million for the establishment of strategic technology reserves — such as distributed caches of radios — and the allocation of funds to be used for planning and coordination.

The relatively last-minute guidance changes generated a range of reactions from government officials charged with distributing the block grants to state and local agencies. “It was something that was welcomed and appreciated,” said Bryan Fisher, preparedness branch chief for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “It wasn't necessarily expected, but we were glad to see it. We have one major urban area that is moving toward the 700 MHz band, but our primary public-safety communication network is VHF. We have to be interoperable with 800 MHz, VHF and 700 MHz.”

In West Virginia, they're taking it all in stride. “In the government, you have to be flexible, you have to do the best with the things that you've got,” said Michael Todorovich, the state's interoperable coordinator for homeland security. “I don't see anything that gives me great concern.”

But those positive reactions don't mean there isn't significant work still to be done at the state and local level to get a piece of the action. “[NTIA and DHS have] aligned this grant so that each state needs to turn in a statewide interoperability plan,” said Chris Essid, Virginia's interoperability coordinator. “Virginia is on its fourth version. We've had a pretty easy time. Some other states are having some severe difficulties.” Essid believes only eight states had an interoperability plan as of spring 2007, with many states having “nothing” to work with, based upon conversations he had at a grant workshop in March.

The grant program's most basic requirements also may cause some headaches for agencies that don't fully understand the underlying purpose of the program. “Folks that don't deal with … the interoperability problem don't understand you have to get [projects] approved [for interoperability],” Essid said. “You can get it kicked back. Folks say, ‘I want to do this project,’ but DHS can kick it back and say it doesn't meet the criteria.”

Todorovich also witnessed a lack of statewide planning. “We went [to a PSIC grant workshop] in May or June, and a lot of states didn't have an interoperability plan, a formalized plan,” he said. After the workshop, West Virginia reappointed its interoperable governance committee and revised its statewide interoperability plan.

Even if state and local agencies fully understand the grant principles and develop compliant projects, choosing winners is going to be an arduous process, Essid said.

“Virginia is split into seven regions. We're having meetings in all seven regions and an eighth with state agencies in one month,” he said. “People are going to meet and present their projects in each region. Every region is going to prioritize their own projects.

“We're going to look at commonalities, look at two or three agencies trying to buy portable radios and try to combine them. The top projects [will] go to the state interoperability executive committee, and it will look at common investments also. We predict there will be commonalities there as well,” Essid said.

Each state is limited to 10 projects that can be submitted for grant approval, so combining an equipment procurement or being able to leverage infrastructure in adjoining townships, counties and regions is one key to getting the most bang for the buck.

“Virginia is getting $27 million,” Essid said. “It sounds like a lot of money, but it's not. Communications systems are incredibly expensive. Spread out those dollars among seven regions — and an eighth with the state — and there's not a lot of dollars there.” For example, Stafford County, Va., has priced the buildout of a 700 MHz system at $30 million.

A saving grace is that PSIC money can be used to build upon other interoperable communications projects funded over the last five years. “There are lots of [existing project] funds that we can build on and continue to grow,” Essid said. “New investments should work in concert with those projects.”

The influx of federal dollars is causing Virginia's government agencies to look at a number of improvements to their existing radio networks. “Voice-over-IP linkup, no matter what the frequencies, is an efficient, effective way for interoperability,” Essid said. “There's all kinds of gateway-type solutions to bridge systems.”

Funding also may go to the construction of a “few more” radio towers in the southwest part of the state to expand local radio networks into a regional one, Essid said. Another option is to expand the use of national interoperability frequencies throughout Virginia, which would let first responders move through the state without having to change radios.

Several options are on the table for Alaska, with the dropping of the 700 MHz requirement opening up more possibilities for the state, according to the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management's Fisher.

“Our wireless infrastructure in Alaska is generally behind the power curve with the Lower 48,” he said. Bolstering the statewide land mobile radio system is a possibility, as is additional training activities, a strategic technology reserve and further development of the statewide interoperability plan, Fisher added.

Meanwhile, West Virginia is looking at the best ways to give first responders more access to statewide applications, networks and entities, with a view to both the near- and the long-term.

“In the short term, that includes incorporating legacy systems,” Todorovich said. “In the longer term, we want to move toward a fully robust and interoperable environment. Our concern is we don't know what the next [Katrina-level] event is, so we have to be ready today, as well as moving out to the future.”