The years of slogging toward a national interoperability strategy that stands a chance of succeeding appear to have paid off, with DHS’s release of its National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP). This is what first responders have been waiting for: a national strategic plan that sets standards, practices and deadlines for actually achieving interoperable communications.
“The NECP provides recommendations and milestones to guide emergency responders and relevant government officials to make measurable improvements in emergency communications over the next three years,” said DHS Deputy Press Secretary Amy Kudwa. Specifically, the NECP defines three goals that establish a minimum level of interoperable communications and milestones for federal, state, local and tribal agencies to achieve that level.
By 2010, 90% of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) should be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies. By a year later, 75% of non-UASI jurisdictions should be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies. Finally, by 2013, 75% of all jurisdictions should be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours of a significant event as outlined in national planning scenarios.
Based on responses from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and SAFECOM experts, they are happy with the NECP. “APCO sees the NECP as offering tangible goals and guidelines to public safety agencies at all levels of government, as they plan their future purchases of communications equipment,” said Yucel Ors, APCO’s legislative affairs director. “Most importantly, the NECP is designed to ensure that the various statewide interoperability efforts now under way integrate seamlessly into a coherent national system. This represents real progress, especially because the deadlines outlined in the NECP are realistic.”
“The most important benefit that this offers is that it places all public safety organizations and government agencies—tribal, local, state and federal—on the same playing field with the same set of rules and guidance,” said Charlottesville, VA Chief Charles Werner, member of the SAFECOM Executive Committee.
“Although we have definitely made significant progress with interoperability across the nation, there has never been a clear road map that clearly acknowledges when our journey to interoperability has been successful. While coming very late into the game, the NECP is still very well positioned to build on the SCIPs and leverage past, present and future purchases/deployment of interoperability communications equipment.”
The road to the NECP has been a long one, going back to DHS’s RapidCom initiative in the wake of Sept. 11, spearheaded by SAFECOM. “RapidCom was designed to ensure that a minimum level of emergency response interoperability would be in place in 10 high-threat urban areas by Sept. 30, 2004,” said Kudwa.
As part of the RapidCom team, SAFECOM worked closely with emergency response leaders in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington D.C. to assess their cities’ communications interoperability capacity and needs and to identify and implement solutions. With the initial work of RapidCom complete, incident commanders in each of those urban areas were able to verify the ability to adequately communicate with each other and their respective command centers within one hour of an incident.
Next came the 2006 SAFECOM National Interoperability Baseline Survey, which was circulated to 22,400 randomly selected law enforcement, fire response, and emergency medical services (EMS) agencies. “The survey confirmed that roughly 66% of emergency response agencies across the nation use interoperable communications at varying degrees,” Kudwa said.
After this was done, DHS’s Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) conducted interviews and discussions with more than 150 stakeholders from federal, state, local and tribal agencies, plus the private sector, to develop the NECP. “Many of these discussions centered on establishing a minimum level of interoperability to be achieved on a nationwide basis and a date by which the stakeholders expect to achieve this level, as per the legislative requirement,” she said. “This included a targeted focus group of practitioners that had led operations in major disasters like September 11th to help create and refine the language for the goals.”
However, the process isn’t over yet. “Following the release of the NECP, there are questions that are being compiled from various public safety organizations, Congress, and all levels of government from which there will be tools developed to help the organizations understand and implement the NECP,” Chief Werner said. “There are many tools like the Interoperability Continuum and the Statewide Communications Interoper-ability Planning (SCIP) templates which already exist and can provide much help immediately from an understanding and planning viewpoint.”
Additionally, $50 million will become available to help with planning, governance, training and exercises. This money will NOT be available for equipment. And there is a new communications leaders (COM-L) training program now being rolled out to help establish interoperable communications during significant events which is generating much excitement within the public safety community.
Speaking of money, how will U.S. public safety agencies cover the cost of achieving the NECP’s goals? “There are two specific interoperable communications grant programs with which DHS is involved that support the goals of the NECP,” Kudwa said. “These two programs—the DHS Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program (IECGP) and the Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) Grant Program, jointly administered by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and DHS—provide $1,016,500,000 for improving interoperability nationwide.”
In addition to these targeted funds, a number of other DHS grant programs, including the Homeland Security Grant Program, the Port Security Grant Program and the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, provide for interoperable communications equipment and planning.
Taken as a whole, the NECP represents an impressive achievement in realizing public safety interoperability in the United States, not just for federal agencies, but all levels of first responders large and small. In a world where many plans fall short, it is fair to call the NECP a triumph of collaborative planning among DHS, all levels of public safety agencies and the private sector.
The real value of the NECP will not be seen until this nation faces another horrific challenge like that posed by 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina. One does not wish for either kind of challenge to arise, of course, but given the nature of human history, it seems only a matter of time until it will. When these events do occur, the importance of the NECP and the implementation of its goals will be seen in terms of actual lives saved. That is as tangible a benefit as any strategic plan can ever hope to achieve. For more information about the NECP, visit www.dhs.gov
. James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.