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Tactical interoperable communications planning

 Public safety agencies in the United States made significant inroads in 2006 addressing the complex and often thorny issue of communications interoperability. Many local, state, and federally funded projects are under way nationwide, from the 65 model projects funded in part by $250 million in grants from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to hundreds of smaller initiatives sparked by homeland security grants. Perhaps the single largest effort coordinated nationwide this past year has been the Department of Homeland Security’s push for major metropolitan areas to develop regional plans for tactical interagency communications and exercises to validate them.

In FY05 grant guidance, DHS established a requirement that Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) regions produce something called a tactical interoperable communications plan or TICP. Additionally, each state without a UASI region was also required as a condition of continued grant funding to designate a metropolitan region similarly responsible for development of a plan. A deadline of May 1, 2005, was established for submission of the plans, followed by a 12-month period during which the TICP had to be “validated” through a full-scale exercise.

Ultimately, 75 metropolitan regions across the country submitted plans and carried out exercises. This included all the UASI regions and 29 state-designated metro areas. Each was eligible for DHS-funded assistance in completing the plans, provided through its Office of Grants and Training Interoperable Communications Technical Assistance Program (ICTAP). As one of ICTAP’s key policy and operational services providers, SEARCH served under the program in several roles. SEARCH served in a lead capacity at 12 sites from Vermont to Louisiana to Alaska, provided implementation workshops to prepare hundreds of participants for validation exercises in six locations from Seattle to St. Thomas, and led exercise evaluation teams at 14 sites from Pittsburgh to Oakland. SEARCH staff members led the first exercise evaluation team in Louisville, KY and one of the last in Albuquerque, NM.

The 12-month period originally allotted for TICP validation exercises was shortened in March of this year to five months. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff chose to accelerate the validation schedule to meet this most pressing of target capabilities under Homeland Security Presidential Directives. With a deadline of Sept. 30 for exercises, the 75 regions pushed to get their plans submitted by May 1 and exercised in the five months that followed.

The DHS Office of Grants and Training’s Exercise and Technical Assistance Divisions worked hand-in-hand to plan and evaluate the exercises. Standardized exercise evaluation guides (EEGs) were developed based on dimensions of the SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum. A presidential e-Gov initiative, SAFECOM is the umbrella policy program at the federal level for communications interoperability. These EEGs were used by evaluators to document observations at multiple venues or points of observation during the exercises. They served as the raw material for After-Action Reports and Improvement Plans (AAR/IP) developed for and in cooperation with each site.

During an initial planning conference in May launching the shortened and daunting schedule of exercises, Chertoff announced that following their completion, a scorecard would be issued for each of the metropolitan regions quantifying their levels of communications interoperability. About 400 attendees heard of plans to provide a comprehensive, meaningful series of measures to guide future development of communications interoperability.

As of this writing, the scorecards are under development. Eight dimensions of governance, policies and procedures, and usage will be scored for each of the sites by peer evaluators and other subject matter experts in November. They will use the TICPs themselves, the findings of plan reviewers who initially accepted them, and the results of the exercises to characterize where each region sits—from early to complete stages of development. It’s undetermined at this time if the scores will be released publicly. Lessons learned from the TICP validation exercises will be coalesced and shared, however. Evaluators found many commonalities in otherwise widely differing regions across the country. These lessons may provide the most detailed observations yet gathered about the need and capacity of the nation’s public safety agencies for interagency communications at a very tactical and a very practical level.

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In the months to follow, we will take a look in this column at the key challenges facing public safety in improving interagency communications. Historically, those challenges have included limited and fragmented planning, coordination, cooperation, funding, and radio spectrum resulting in reduced interoperability and technological incompatibility. We’ll explore further changes that, like the Tactical Interoperable Communications Plans and their validation exercises of 2006, promise to help the nation’s emergency responders overcome their interoperability woes.

Dan Hawkins is 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 U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and endorsed by the DHS SAFECOM program.

Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2006

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