Fed suggests interoperability liaisons
A Department of Justice representative, speaking last month at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference in Orlando, proposed the creation of federally funded interoperability liaisons in the 10 cities at highest risk for a terrorist attack.
The liaisons ideally would be a retired public-safety official who would be the face of the federal government on a local level, said Robert Zanger, a DOJ attorney who currently is the program manager for the department’s 25 Cities Program, which was created about three years ago to establish baseline interoperable communications in the 25 cities at highest risk for terrorist attack.
“They would provide a built-in point of contact in each city who would know what’s going on,” Zanger said.
Zanger acknowledged that the liaison concept is at a very nascent stage. “This is not a DOJ proposal, much less a congressional proposal,” Zanger said. “I’m not sure how to get it done, because I don’t work in that world much.”
Funding such an initiative will be a challenge, if history is any indicator. The 25 Cities Program was seeded with $25 million taken from the Integrated Wireless Network project, a collaborative effort by the DOJ, Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury to provide a nationwide federal wireless network to support first responder communications. “What distinguished this program is that it isn’t a grant program — we had the money in hand,” Zanger said. “That brought people to the table — there was no application process.”
In contrast, the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM project, which also is working to develop interoperable communications capabilities nationwide, has achieved limited success to date because it has tied grant money to regional agreement on interoperability plans. The widespread inability of public-safety entities across the country to reach such consensus has left millions of dollars on the table.
Unfortunately, spread across 25 cities, the money allocated for the 25 Cities program wasn’t enough to purchase new equipment, “so we tried to leverage existing systems,” Zanger said.
Zanger has a realistic view of the funding hurdles that would have to be cleared to create an interoperability liaison program, yet he is convinced that more money needs to be found for human resources.
“Right now, a significant amount of money is being set aside for equipment, but virtually none for people,” he said.
It was a sentiment echoed several times during the session. Jose Perez, regional communications systems manager for the Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, said, “Talking to people is how it works.”
Dan Guild, telecommunications manager for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, agreed: “Relationships are the key, the big factor.”
Currently, the 25 Cities Program has been completed in 11 cities (see graphic). The program was implemented in five phases. The first step was to identify the cities considered to be the most likely targets. The second step involved meeting with local personnel and assessing local resources and communications capabilities. Then, communications needs were prioritized and recommended solutions were shared with affected agencies. Once that was done, operational and training plans were developed and training exercises were conducted.
From a technology perspective, the program focused on establishing fixed solutions that would provide permanent interconnection of disparate systems — such as console patches — mobile solutions that would provide temporary links over a limited geographic area, and operational solutions that addressed management issues.
According to Perez, the program made a big difference in the Miami metropolitan area, where disparate dispatch switches were connected using phone lines prior to the program’s advent.
“The delay was terrible,” Perez said. “If you tried to connect Broward County [which includes Fort Lauderdale] to Monroe County [Key West], you could get a cup of coffee before the call would connect. The circuits take time to set up.”