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NECP goals measurement

Written by Dan Hawkins

This past July, the Department of Homeland Security released the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP). A requirement of the 2007 DHS appropriations legislation, the NECP is a strategic plan limited by Congressional intent and yet expansive due to the breadth of the topic.

Specifically, Public Law 109-295, the “21st Century Emergency Communications Act of 2006” states an intent that the NECP provide recommendations on how the United States should support and promote continued communications capabilities during disasters and terrorist attacks, as well as how it should “ensure, accelerate, and attain interoperable communications nationwide.” The legislation also created the Office of Emergency Communications, and established responsibilities of its director to develop the NECP and report biennially on progress in achieving its goals.

NECP Background

Full details on the NECP and its development are beyond the scope and available space of this column, but some background may be helpful in understanding how DHS is proceeding with measurement of progress in meeting its goals.

The NECP was developed last year near the end of a related national effort of all states and territories to develop statewide interoperable communications plans (SCIPs). Before OEC’s establishment, DHS tied development of SCIPs to Homeland Security grant funding, as well as into its administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant program. It delayed finalization of the NECP while 56 SCIPs submitted by the states and territories were evaluated.

As released in July, the NECP establishes an achievable, outcome-oriented vision of emergency responder communications and sets progressive goals out to 2013. Adapted from SAFECOM’s definition of interoperability, the NECP vision is the idea that emergency responders can communicate as needed, on demand, and as authorized at all levels of government and across all disciplines.

Appropriately broad, the vision statement also implicitly acknowledges that communications is best that interferes least. That is, it simply works.

The NECP establishes three goals, seven objectives, 29 initiatives, and 92 milestones. The initiatives and milestones are “recommended” since many require the cooperation of multiple levels of government and independent jurisdictions, as well as future funding. The plan identifies July 31, 2008, as the beginning of the timeline associated with each element.

NECP Goals

Various stakeholder groups were engaged in NECP development. Practitioners, in particular, pressed for goals that were outcome-oriented and observable in attainment. Toward those ends, three were established.

Goal 1—By 2010, 90 percent of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.

Goal 2—By 2011, 75 percent of non-UASI jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.

Goal 3—By 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours, in the event of a significant incident as outlined in national planning scenarios.

Three things should be immediately apparent. First, the goals are progressive all in time, targeted community, and scope. Second, they all revolve around the ability to demonstrate “response-level communications” in short periods of time. And lastly, multi-agency incidents are the focal point.

The term “response-level emergency communications” was essentially coined for these goals. It is not a common term of art. The NECP defines it as: “[T]he capacity of individuals with primary operational leadership responsibility to manage resources and make timely decisions during an incident involving multiple agencies, without technical or procedural communications impediments.

The term was adopted to distinguish a level of communications distinct from what incident command staff use (typically face-to-face at the command post) and equally distinct from the tactical communications of operational subdivisions. It and the subsequent reference to primary operational leadership prove central to measures of progress in achieving the NECP goals.

Primary operational leadership in the context of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) is the operations section chief and first-level subordinates. In multi-agency incidents, this is the highest level of interagency communications outside of the command post.

The NECP goals are outcome oriented. They target the capacity of individuals at the top of the operations chain to manage resources and make decisions. Implicit is the idea that without a common incident management system and clear chain of command, particularly during multi-agency incidents, the effectiveness of emergency communications is doubtful—and essentially impossible to assess.

Evaluation of Progress in Reaching Goals

The NECP was developed with considerable stakeholder involvement. It states an intent to work through stakeholders to determine valid metrics for the objectives and initiatives. It further commits to coordinating with stakeholders for assessing progress in reaching the goals.

In early December, the Office of Emergency Communications introduced a draft goal assessment process and criteria to three key stakeholder groups: The SAFECOM Executive Committee and Emergency Response Council, and the first national gathering of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators. This latter group is made up individuals with identified responsibility for SCIPs.

As presented to these groups, the process of evaluating progress toward Goals 1 and 2 would be closely related to and form the foundation for eventual evaluation of Goal 3. The targeted jurisdictions—UASI in Goal 1 and non-UASI in Goal 2—would be asked to demonstrate that response-level communications were established within one hour during a routine incident or exercise of their choosing. Goal 3 was not addressed in detail, but since it refers significant incidents as outlined in the national planning scenarios, one may hope that exercises will be used more than actual incidents for evaluation.

Commenters have generally agreed that it will be simplest for respondents to assess a routine multi-jurisdictional incident of their own choosing. However, the use of an exercise to base an evaluation on is likely to remain an option.

Evaluation Criteria

Evaluation criteria are still under development. A working group examined past and current DHS work to identify suitable or related criteria. It adopted or adapted criteria from three areas: the Target Capabilities List (TCL) of the National Preparedness Guidelines, the Tactical Interoperable Communications scorecards assembled in 2006, and exercise evaluation guides from Tactical Interoperable Communications (TIC) Plan validation exercises.

Seven “incident selection” and 14 “evaluation” draft criteria were introduced at the December meetings. Incident selection criteria are essentially guidance for picking an appropriate incident to evaluate. Evaluation criteria dig further into facets of response-level communications, such as use of unambiguous unit identification procedures and common terminology.

The actual evaluation tool is likely to be a set of questions built around the criteria. Some questions, such as whether the incident or exercise was managed under NIMS ICS, will be answerable by a simple “yes” and “no.” Others, such as whether plain language and common terminology were used, will be more appropriately answered as a matter of degree, such as “some of the time,” “most of the time,” etc.

Several commenters have already noted that a good evaluation tool would be useful far beyond DHS’ needs to evaluate progress in achieving NECP goals. They have had similar needs within their own jurisdictions and regions to assess incidents and exercises, so they see promise in development of a set of criteria and an evaluation tool.

Progressive Goals: UASI & Non-UASI Regions

Evaluation of progress in meeting Goal 1 will be relatively easy. Most current UASI regions have developed solid TIC plans, providing a suitable foundation and a cadre of individuals who could carry out a regional self-assessment. With only 60 metropolitan regions targeted, DHS has a small number of evaluations to consider. Even if it chooses to carry out some measure of independent validation of the self-assessments, it is dealing with relatively few incidents or exercises.

Goal 2, on the other hand, increases the scope of the evaluation by a couple of orders of magnitude. Depending on how separate city, county, regional, and state jurisdictions are broken down, the number of evaluations could range from a few hundred to tens of thousands.

OEC is expected to work closely with individual states and their statewide interoperability coordinators to create an evaluation process suitable for each. In doing so, it has to assure that they are consistent enough for validity in the composite, nationwide roll-up of results.

NECP – The Bigger Picture

The NECP is a complex document. Rightfully so—emergency communications is a broad topic. Congress did narrow the plan’s scope, though, and DHS has positive history addressing some of the drivers that led to the legislation in the first place. Still, the plan contains a wealth of objectives and initiatives beyond these few, high-level goals. Their evaluation will be another large effort.

The Office of Emergency Communications has a huge community of interest across all levels of government. It has limited carrots and even fewer sticks to accomplish what Congress has mandated of it. It functions most effectively as an organizer seeking to build sufficient consensus behind initiatives identified by its stakeholders, themselves, to progress. It has assembled a portfolio of these initiatives into a comprehensive plan. To this extent, OEC has been successful in establishing a strategic plan with a vision, goals, and objectives that can be assessed through an outcome-based evaluation. Because the NECP vision is truly achievable, the plan’s goals can be seen as outcome targets or indicators. They may not be comprehensive, but it is hard to argue that they don’t target the very heart of communications interoperability.

Dan Hawkins is the director of Public Safety Programs for SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. He is author of “Communications Interoperability: A Guide for Interagency Communications Projects,” published by the USDOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and jointly sponsored by the DHS SAFECOM program.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2009

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