Interoperability gets political boost at APCO conference
Thanks to a sponsorship by Accelera Wireless, the APCO national conference in Nashville, Tenn., conducted what it called a town hall meeting hosted by John Sununu, a former White House chief of staff in the first Bush Administration and a former New Hampshire governor.
Sununu recruited Gov. John Engler of Michigan, Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Ron Miller, the chief information officer of the Federal Emergency Management agency to join him in the presentation along with the president of Acclera and representatives of two other companies.
Referring to the post-Sept. 11, 2001, environment, Sununu said that if the town hall meeting were to have been conducted a year ago, the flavor, focus, tenor and way the conference participants would themselves would have been completely different.
“We have new responsibilities and need to understand of hard issues and have the sensitivity within ourselves and organizations to accept the responsibility to break historic molds and address issues and realities we learned from the tragedies. I recognize how we talk about what we do in communications has to focus on technology, standards, spectrum policy and funding. I believe issues of technology standards and spectrum will evolve. It is imperative to get to a solution of those issues,” Sununu said.
“But we must understand that there has to be a new way of doing business in formulating policy, inspiring significant aggressive infusion of funding and capital and ways of bringing these issues together in an environment that is political,” he said.
Sununu praised those who serve the public in both line positions and in political office.
“We let the press bad-mouth public service and those involved in policymaking on political side. There is no more dedicated group than those on the public payroll serving as you do and those who give a part of their life to elected office, making policy,” Sununu said.
He said that those in public service often we let the media shape an environment in the wrong way.
“Sometimes I’m asked whether I think Dan Rather is ignorant of biased? The answer is ‘yes’,” he said.
Sununu said that there is no more critical single issue than addressing what he said was clearly the most significant negative part of the analysis of the emergency response on Sept. 11.
“Heroic men and women had one serious problem to overcome: communications. There have been lots of nice reports and polite political analysis. If we are honest with ourselves and take a hard look at what went wrong, the problem was that there was no capacity to interact across fiefdoms. There was no willingness to let walls that people and institutions create for themselves for systems that work within their own boundaries be crossed. There was little effort to cross the boundaries and link together in an effective way.
“It’s not politic to give such a direct explanation. If you talk among yourselves, you will recognize that reality, Sununu said.
He said that the challenge is to create a system of incentives and cooperation so everyone can participate in the resolution of those problems.
If you have to divide the roles and responsibilities, there is one that is irreplaceable at the state level. As a former governor, I would offer that state planning has not been aggressive enough and has not accepted enough responsibility to provide leadership and resources. Quite often, the lack of state leadership and resources is given as an excuse for the unwillingness of the divisions below to participate in the process,” he said.
Sununu said that the first critical change that has to occur involves state leadership. He said governors’ offices and state legislatures have to recognize how crucial radio communications interoperability is and their role in the process to contribute to policies and resources that can make a difference.
“When that’s accepted and implemented into the process, for all of us below that level have to take the responsibility to change the old way of doing business and solve this very real and critical problem,” he said.
The federal government has a national coordinating responsibility and can create incentives in grant program and define in ways that make sense the responsibilities that shall transfer from federal to state and localities. As we all want to see, that should be accompanied with funding to see,” Sununu said.
“Funding and interoperability are the principles. That is what we must focus on in the planning process and in sharing the responsibilities,” he said.
Sununu identified a “third layer,” which he said involves finding additional sources of funding. But he said that as states and the federal government look at their budgets, they see what he said are “horizons in near future with financial problems.”
As a result, Sununu suggested that public safety organizations look for ways to bring private monies into solving their problems.
“Europeans have been more aggressive in giving incentives for private funding to build out the networks first. They also give incentives for users to come onto the systems. In doing that, they have ‘catalyzed’ a movement leading to completing their systems on schedules shorter than ours,” Sununu said.
He said that the United Kingdom is moving toward privatizing a significant portion of its emergency response structure.
“I’ve been talking with people on technology side, spectrum and standards, and funding. I found an eagerness on the part of financial community to ask the questions necessary for them to be part of the solution. If we can motivate private funds, we can accelerate by five or 10 years the construction of networks,” Sununu said.
In thinking through the problem, Sununu said, “I put on a lot of my old hats. I was an engineering planner at the state and local. I was a governor and a White House chief of staff. Now I have a role in the private sector to make technology systems work. No matter what slice of perspective of the issue you start with, you end up with a bottleneck in getting good policy; in someone taking a stand politically, making a decision and moving forward.”
Sununu said that with the leadership shown in Washington on a bipartisan basis, Congress is changing the framework there and doing things differently in Washington. He said the congressional commitment should transfer itself and energize state and local governments and their public safety organizations to do likewise.
“Leadership at the state level is mandatory. But what goes with leadership is a serious slice that is never discussed: good ‘followership.’ That is as much a part of the solution as leadership,” Sununu said.
“This is a challenge. It is not easy politically or psychologically. I’m confident as we look at our responsibilities post-Sept. 11, not only can we do it, we want to do it, and we will be able to do it,” Sununu said.
Sununu then introduced the political members of the town hall panel, who joined him on stage.
He said the Michigan Governor John Engler was described by the Detroit News as having had “more impact on the lives of Michiganians in the past decade than any other. His imprint will be evident into the new century.”
Sununu said that Michigan has been credited with installing the first statewide digital public safety communications system and because of that experience, what Gov. Engler had to say would be significant.
The second panelist was eight-term Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon, whose background includes service as a volunteer firefighter and mayor in Marcus Hook, Penn.
“Weldon knows that problems of the first responder and the local political side. And he has been a supporter of policy and funding for emergency communications in the United States,” Sununu said.
The third panelist was Ron Miller, the chief information officer of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“When discussions involve how the Homeland Security Department will look, it is a good wager that the backbone will be FEMA. When FEMA Director Joe Albaugh wants something on the technical side and communications, he turns Miller,” Sununu said.
Engler told the APCO audience that one challenge everyone faces post-Sept. 11 is how to maximize public investment of federal, state and local resources.
He held up a copy of a Detroit newspaper containing a story about the new $32 million radio system planned for Oakland County (Mich.) radio system that he said would tie together deputies, emergency workers, public works, parks and recreation and other county divisions. He pointed out that the system is funded by a surcharge on Oakland County telephone bills that would extend for five years.
He said that he notice alongside the county radio system story was another that said sharing a radio network could save millions of dollars.
“The Michigan State Police has a tower in Oakland County, one of 181 towers built as part of our public safety communications system over four years. It worked out that 120 towers were placed in the Lower Peninsula where 97% of the population resides, and 61 were placed in the Upper Peninsula where 3% of the population resides. A challenge we faced was that a populous county said that it shouldn’t have to pay into a state system that covers a sparsely populated area in the northern part of the state.”
Engler said that Oakland County has a mature cellular and wireless network already in place serving international companies, so the county has some add-on opportunities in proposing its own system of towers.
“We have to have a way to figure out the cost of a statewide system. In Michigan, we were on leading edge of technological change. But our system is for mobile, in-vehicle devices, not hand-held devices. [For its design purpose], it has spectacular coverage: 97 to 98 percent of the state, and fully operational,” Engler said.
On the Michigan system are all state police and some national resource officers and state natural resource workers involving 8,500 subscriber units.
Engler said that placing local governments on the system has been slow going because of cost and technological advances made since the state system was planned, funded and built. He said that to attract other users, the system needs data and video, but those features weren’t in the original purchase because they weren’t available at the time.
He said that in talking with Miller and Weldon, he wondered what would be the best way to maintain local decision-making, yet make sure adjacent communities have interoperability as a priority for their police, fire and emergency medical service crews to talk with one another.
“That’s where some federal money and policy should take us. At the state and local level, there should be incentives or rewards for those who collaborate ahead of rugged individuals who say they want to go it alone when that doesn’t cut it in terms of homeland security,” Engler said.
Taking the floor, Weldon said that he wouldn’t be in politics were it not for public safety. He said he was an assistant fire chief 27 years ago when a chemical tanker in his jurisdiction burned out of control for 23 days.
“Our frustration was a lack of ability to communicate among ourselves, with state and federal agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard,” he said.
“I served as mayor and then county commissioner with a goal of 9-1-1 capability. In Congress, I wanted to focus on same issues for public safety. In 16 years, I’ve traveled to most of the major disasters. Radio communications interoperability, or the lack of it, has been a common thread,” Weldon said.
“In past years, about 100 firefighters and paramedics per year have lost their lives when that toll, and civilian casualties, might have been reduced with improved communications,” he said.
Weldon said that the private sector was doing a good job of solving communications and singled out Raytheon as showing Congress how to integrate communications through one vehicle. He said that other companies also have similar technology on hand.
“What’s frustrating to me as a supporter of military spending is that we spend $62 million per year on international defenders but, money for local domestic defenders was $15 million. Some say it’s not a federal responsibility. I believe that firefighters should be allowed to maintain their identity and integrity. But we spend $4 billion per year on police officers.
“We need strategies whereby the federal government doesn’t provide solutions, but incentives to put in place to use technology already developed,” Weldon said.
Weldon said that many public safety organizations don’t trust the federal and state governments. He said that they see many of the dollars siphoned off to create bureaucracies with little money reaching them.
“Two years ago, I offered legislation to provide $100 million in grants for fire departments across the county. This year, it’s $510 million. President Bush has proposed $3.5 billion for first responders, and much of that is for communications. We need to make sure that the bulk gets to local communications networks that are doing great work. We need to provide leverage that entices them to come together for the collaborative capability that we need. They should maintain their autonomy and do what they do, but we’ll support them. We have to make sure our first responder community has the integrated communications they need because the next disaster will be worse,” Weldon said.
FEMA’s chief information officer said that his motivation for interoperability included the story he heard about public safety incident commanders having to pass paper notes at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing, and that his boss, FEMA Director Joseph Albaugh, saw same the thing in New York on Sept. 11.
“To think about the time that has passed since the Oklahoma City bombing and to be where we are at this time, that’s a tragedy,” he said.
Miller said that although he has been in his post only 14 months, he has seen a lot of activity in public safety wireless communications but not much coordination. He said that he sees different organizations trying to solve the same problem with billions of dollars tied up and no focus.
Miller said that all disasters are local, and that the federal government would not dictate a solution to interoperability. Instead, he said the government needs to create a framework with incentives for interoperability and provide funding, especially for volunteer fire departments: “There are more ‘have-nots’ than ‘haves’,” he said.
“The White House is driving toward project SafeCom that takes all activities in federal government wireless and brings them under a single structure to focus the effort and reduce costs. Under SafeCom, addressing state and local interoperability includes soliciting the involvement of APCO and IAFC and IACP who are directly affected and involved in disasters at local level as a steering organization for the federal effort,” Miller said. “They should help us to set priorities and decide how to make it happen.”
In speaking about how important it is for local agencies to have resources, Miller said, “FEMA doesn’t hold on to money very long. It passes the through with grant programs. The firefighter grants of Rep. Weldon have been successful. I believe money requested by the president for this issue will get a first installment, and that one installment will not be enough.”
Miller said that FEMA has mechanisms in place to get money to people who need it, and that with input from local authorities, FEMA should provide guidelines for a framework for interoperability.
“Within that framework, people can make purchases based on features and price, knowing interoperability is built in,” Miller said.
“That’s our objective. It has much to do to with interoperability, but spectrum management is significant. We need to look at individual devices and how they’re constructed, at state and local infrastructure and how to bring voice, data and video into the picture,” he said.
Miller said that, as a political appointee, he doesn’t have much time, “so my foot is on the accelerator. I want to make sure when I leave we have something in place that’s different and that has made for change. We have support in Rep. Weldon for interoperability for public safety officials. Others in the Congress are sensitive. With allies like that, FEMA can move forward, and we want you as allies, too,” he said.
Weldon said that he is a fiscal conservative, and that although the federal government shouldn’t “bail people out,” there are things that it should be doing.
“I’ve made the recommendation that we set aside frequencies for public safety. That still has not been done yet. You ought to demand it. Is public safety less important that another TV station in the high frequency area?” he asked, to the applause of the audience.
“In terms of funding, there’s a resolve for federal government because we’re asking public safety agencies to prepare for terrorists. The federal government has never done that before. Most fire departments are composed of volunteers,” he said.
He said that the federal role is not to take over public safety agencies, but to provide selective resources to encourage them to match funding and to bring in private funds through bonding and other mechanisms where state and local governments put some resources in play.
”You should call for county collaboration for a statewide response system. Dollars need to go to 9-1-1 centers and dispatchers where counties have taken enlightened approach to bring systems together. Leverage those steps with a small amount of federal dollars. You need to make sure at that local level there is collaboration. There are some who don’t want a part of 21st century. You have to fight that battle. We can’t do that,” Weldon said.
He urged the individuals in the audience to tell agencies and bureaucracies that they have to collaborate for the interoperability that most believe is essential.