Panel: Interoperability about people more than technology
There is a long way to go to resolve interoperable communications problems for first responders, with technology being the last and the least worrisome problem to solve, according to federal and local officials and public policy experts at an event sponsored by the New Millennium Research Council in Washington.
Throughout their presentations, speakers cited several challenges to interoperability, ranging from a lack of funding and a commitment to change existing operational policies to basic terminology differences among agencies, with the biggest hurtle being institutional barriers. In recent Congress hearings, Homeland Defense officials have stated it could take 20 years before public safety agencies are interoperable.
“We don’t have another 20 years,” said Congressman Bart Stupak. “Public safety is not an issue where the administration or Congress should continue to drag its feet. But here we are, three years after 9/11, and we’re still at square one. It’s a disgrace, and it needs to change.”
In his opening remarks, Stupak, co-chairman of the House Law Enforcement Caucus and a 12-year police veteran representing Michigan’s First Congressional District, blamed a lack of money. According to Stupak, only $100 million in federal funding has been specifically provided for interoperable communications since 2003, but an estimated $18 billion is required to make the nation’s public safety agencies fully interoperable.
“This administration talks a good game on homeland security and interoperability, but it doesn’t seem to want to fully deliver, especially when it comes to funding,” said Stupak. “There has been a serious lack of commitment from this administration and from Congress.”
Stupak last year introduced the Public Safety Interoperability Implementation Act to provide a guaranteed source of grant funding for interoperable communications by using half the revenue generated by spectrum auctions by the FCC.
David Boyd, Director of the SAFECOM Program Office at Department of Homeland Security, indicated that quick fixes for interoperability just aren’t there. “History suggests that the notion that three years post-9/11 we’d have full interoperability is bizarre,” said Boyd. “Anyone who imagines that [this] could have been accomplished in three years knows nothing about this subject or this field.”
Boyd cited his military experience to illustrate the challenges to get different agencies to work together. The Department of Defense started working on interoperability in the early 1970s, when Boyd was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and it had a relatively simple task with only four branches to integrate and a single committee in the House and Senate funding it.
“I retired from the Army after a full career a little over 12 years ago, and [today] the Defense Department is now almost interoperable,” Boyd said.
With 60,000 first responder organizations in the United States each purchasing their own equipment, interoperability is a considerable challenge, according to Boyd. “Every chief of police sees himself as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his community and every fire chief disagrees,” he said.
SAFECOM, an umbrella program within the Federal government to improve wireless interoperability across local, tribal, state and federal public safety agencies, is focusing its efforts on 10 “high-threat” large urban cities through the RapidCom program to ensure that agencies have incident-level interoperable emergency communications capability by using “gateways” to link radio systems. About $2.1 billion in federal funding had been earmarked for interoperability efforts during the past few years, but the funding requests had been spread out over several departments and were not represented by a single line item, Boyd said.
Government Accountability Office Director William Jenkins said there was an “amazing” amount of misunderstanding about the use of grants and most spending delays occurred at the state and local level.
Local turf wars relating to control issues were cited by several panelists as being a major problem, with Boyd and Jenkins finding themselves in agreement.
“The key problem here is, and continues to be, the inability of people to put aside egos and address this on a regional basis, not on a stovepipe basis,” said Jenkins. “It’s important to remember that [interoperability] is not really a technology issue… it’s a people and process issue.”
Chiming in from the audience, Charlottesville, Va., Deputy Fire Chief Charles Werner agreed that most problems are “90 percent human.”
Panelists cited reluctance by local governments and states to have Washington “mandate” a solution from the top, especially one that would require more local spending for updated equipment. Unfortunately, neighboring communities often started out with requirements for systems with vastly different capabilities with interoperability being low on the list.
As a part of a disciplined process for interoperability, Boyd emphasized constant training with equipment and procedures. “We’ve got communities whose exercises amounted to putting radio systems in fields and saying, ‘Can you hear? Is it okay? Is the signal good?’ Not serious exercises you go through to identify things like, if I call for a [hazardous materials] team, do I know what I’m going to get. Am I going to get a pickup truck with two guys with kitty litter, or am I going to get a [hazardous materials] squad?”
Another issue noted was basic first-responder terminology, including the “linguistic side” of interoperability, said Donald Lund, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire.
“We have no standardized resource nomenclature,” Lund stated, using his own home state as an example. Most departments use the word “ambulance” for dispatching medical help, but one town calls it a “rescue.”
A common set of terms needs to be developed, and everyone from on-scene emergency personnel to dispatchers trained to use the same language, Lund said. Lund also expressed concern about battery management, communications discipline and the “illusion of communication” with messages being transmitted but not properly understood.
“People are talking over each other or stepping on each other because they don’t listen before “they push the talk switch,” he said.
Jenkins said one way to facilitate interoperability would be the creation of a nationwide database of available frequencies and an index of available radio technologies, so first responders would have information necessary for increased coordination with their neighboring agencies before buying equipment. Other fixes suggested by Boyd included a need for “legislative authority” backing DHS’s interoperability efforts, standardized grant guidance, and a firm date for the transfer of 700 MHz frequencies from broadcasters to public-safety use.