Virginia’s COMLINC: An example of a successful transition to a viable funding source
By Tom Gagnon
Following September 11, 2001, states and localities received unprecedented federal grant funding, which resulted in major acquisitions of public safety communications equipment. While greatly enhancing public safety entities’ (PSE) effectiveness, these acquisitions were often made without establishing long-term sustainment plans.
Sustainment funding became an afterthought, as states and localities hurried to secure use-or-lose grant opportunities or assumed grant funding would remain sufficiently adequate to perform sustainment. Facing myriad competing priorities, state and locality governments often accepted risk by assuming equipment maintenance, upgrade, and replacement could be accomplished—in part or completely—with grant funds.
Federal grant funding is a resource outside of the control of states and localities. Today, federal grant funding suffers continual decline, putting state agencies and local PSEs in the dilemma of repairing and replacing aging mission-critical equipment that was never properly resourced within their budgets. With state and locality budgets facing increased pressure, the prospects of transitioning equipment purchased and maintained with grant funds to a budget line item can appear bleak.
However, with the correct approach, the odds of a successful transition can be greatly increased. Virginia’s Commonwealth Link to Interoperable Communications (COMLINC) presents an example of successful transition to a viable funding source with the establishment of the first-ever COMLINC line item within Virginia’s 2018-2020 biennial budget.
Virginia’s COMLINC was established more than 10 years ago as an interoperability solution to enable state agencies and localities using disparate land-mobile-radio (LMR) system to communicate, utilizing VoIP via on-demand “patches” established between fixed consoles and/or portable units in the field. Increasingly popular over the years, COMLINC proved to be an effective interoperability resource for multijurisdictional and multidiscipline public safety operations.
As the system grew, however, the mechanisms to support it did not. The system’s growth and sustainment was continued through a combination of grant funding, local budgets, realigned Virginia State Police (VSP) resources and vendor goodwill. Ironically, COMLINC never gained a dedicated funding stream, despite the widespread belief that it was instrumental in the Commonwealth achieving interoperability by 2015, as was mandated by Virginia Code.
COMLINC approached a crossroads moment in 2016, when portions of the COMLINC infrastructure neared end-of-service life and subscriber growth made it clear that continuing an improvised approach to system-wide technical service and support was unsustainable. Given the widespread use of COMLINC by state agencies and localities, Virginia’s Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC) recognized the need to develop a strategy to ultimately secure legislated funding for COMLINC. Gaining legislated funding required developing a comprehensive programmatic construct to establish credibility and demonstrate the system’s value.
All good strategies are based upon understood principles. The SIEC oriented its strategy based upon the five elements of the Interoperability Continuum. Various mutually supported objectives that aligned with the elements were subsequently accomplished, resulting ultimately in success.
- Governance: The SIEC convened a working group that reviewed and updated the COMLINC User’s Agreement. The working group will transition into a permanent subscriber-driven COMLINC Advisory Group (CAG). Any statewide effort impacting public safety requires governance to be acknowledged as a program worthy of dedicated funding. The CAG, with the support of the SIEC, will provide the necessary subject-matter-expert input to the Office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to ensure responsive government.
- Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): Updating the COMLINC User’s Agreement included checking and ensuring that SOPs remained relevant and included not only operational procedures, but maintenance and technical-support matters. SOPs foster predictable, mutually understandable operations and—ultimately—program credibility.
- Technology: A systemwide refresh plan was developed with a vision toward broadband-device interoperability. It’s hard to ask for funding. if you cannot articulate the requirement. A detailed, realistic, phased plan was developed to easily explain the infrastructure requirement.
- Training and Exercises: COMLINC’s broadband interoperability was leveraged to provide regular new-operator and refresh training for localities and state agencies. Operator training was offered in conjunction with FirstNet outreach events. Regular, value-added training develops operators’ proficiency, which fosters greater usage and—ultimately—system relevancy. With relevancy, COMLINC becomes a funding priority.
- Usage: The vendor partnered with the Virginia Interoperability Program office to develop software capable of measuring daily network activity and collected best use examples. The Program office collected survey information that highlighted criticality to operations and subscribers’ priorities. Documenting quantitative and qualitative information empowered public-safety leaders with the information needed to tell the “COMLINC story,” thereby gaining budget analysts’ and legislators’ attention.
Driving all of these achievements was the committed effort from representatives across the public-safety disciplines and key professional associations. Whether VSP, Virginia Sheriffs Association, or the Virginia Municipal League, representatives joined together as the SIEC to energize conversation about COMLINC across Virginia and within state leadership.
Engaged governance, relevant SOPs, validated requirements, regular training, and documented usage established program credibility and contributed toward gaining the governor-office and general-assembly commitment for resource support. Objectives aligned with the five elements of the Interoperability Continuum collectively worked together to achieve an unprecedented success—the passage of a general-fund allocation for COMLINC maintenance support.
But this is only the start; there is so much more to be accomplished. The CAG needs to convene and develop a strategy to continue the momentum now started. COMLINC requires a systemwide refresh, subscribers need to be informed of the revised Users’ Agreement, and VSP requires a mission-capable maintenance section. All of this is possible with an active CAG, supported by an engaged SIEC, continuing to inform the governor’s office and general assembly of the impact that COMLINC makes by underpinning Virginia’s public-safety interoperability.
Virginia’s COMLINC sustainment dilemma and resulting plan of action provides insights for any state or locality finding itself in a similar situation. The answers lie with proven interoperability principles, such as the Interoperability Continuum. The Continuum’s framework guides many separate efforts into a coordinated, cohesive line of effort, which generates momentum to increase the odds for success.
But, with any success, follow-on challenges always remain. Virginia’s interoperability community of interest must harness the new-found momentum to further refine a comprehensive COMLINC Program that will continue to win support for improving Virginia’s cornerstone for statewide public safety interoperability.
Tom Gagnon is a former SWIC for Virginia and now serves with the U.S. Department of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected].