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Interoperability Progress, Five Years After 9/11

Written by James Careless

It has been five years since incompatible radio communications cost first responder lives at Ground Zero. Five long years in which interoperability studies have been conducted, interagency groups formed, and federal grants to underwrite interoperability projects have been doled out.

So, how has America done in solving the interoperability problem? Not very well, according to Thomas Kean, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. “On Sept. 11, people died because police officers couldn’t talk to firemen,” said Kean in an interview with the Washington Post. “Katrina was a re-enactment of the same problem. It is really hard to believe this has not been fixed.”

Fixed, no. But in fairness, there has been progress made to achieving interoperability since 9/11. The real question is, when it comes to first responder interoperability progress, does the good news outweigh the bad?

The Good News

On the positive side, real progress has been made both by vendors such as M/A-COM—whose NetworkFirst platform can interconnect police, fire, and EMS radio systems via IP networks—and departments that have worked hard to address their interoperability issues.

A case in point: First responders in Pennsylvania’s Cambria County initially coped with their region’s incompatible radio systems by hauling a suite of handheld radios in their vehicles. But “it really wasn’t practical for officers to carry three to four radios every time they left their cars,” said Brian Feist, executive director of Cambria County’s Department of Emergency Management.

This is why Johnston city officials equipped the assistant fire chief’s Chevy Suburban with a six-channel incident commander radio interface (ICRI) to interconnect incompatible radios and telephones. They also installed a rooftop satellite antenna/transceiver and a WiFi transceiver on the vehicle, with everything being paid for by a Department of Homeland Security grant.

The result was instant interoperability wherever the Suburban was parked. Also because the ICRI and satellite/Wi-Fi equipment was installed on a removable pallet, the whole kit could be shifted to another vehicle if the Suburban was out of action.

“In our area, we have done what we can to become interoperable,” Feist said. “At least one aspect of our interoperability system enables us to link these technologies so that if needed, an incident commander using a radio can be linked via satellite voice with persons at a local, regional or national emergency operations centers or any other location that may be necessary without interfering incident operations.”

Cambria County’s success in tackling interoperability has been mirrored by many local and state agencies across the United States. This success does not just reflect a loosening of government purse strings to pay for such projects; there’s been a real change in how seriously politicians and bureaucrats take the need for first responder radio interoperability.

In particular, “The formation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 and increased public interest and pressure have caused a number of new solutions to be introduced,” said John Facella, M/A-COM’s director and market manager for public safety. “In addition, largely as a result of Katrina, there has also been increased emphasis on interoperability between federal officials and state and local first responders.”

The Bad News

Despite the progress that has been made in achieving radio interoperability since 9/11, much of it substantial and impressive, many, many problems remain to be ironed out. For instance, interoperability solution deployments have tended to focus on local and state agencies, with federal agencies being left out in the cold.

Facella said the reason is that the feds “operate on different frequency sub-bands” than their state and local counterparts, making it difficult for current interoperability systems to bridge the gap. Meanwhile, DHS’ National Incident Management System “has mandated that all public safety agencies begin to use the incident command system (ICS) at incidents,” he said. “But most interoperability solutions as presently implemented do not create a ‘network of networks’ that supports the hierarchal command structure of ICS. Instead, most solutions just patch everyone together on one big ‘conference call.’”

On a larger scale, achieving nationwide radio interoperability has been hampered by a lack of political interest and support in Washington. “Five years after Sept. 11 and a year after Katrina, we still don’t have a national strategy to achieve communications interoperability,” said Stephen Jones, executive director of the nonprofit First Response Coalition (FRC). “There’s been progress on attaining interoperability at local and state levels, but there’s a lack of coordination nationally. That’s a real problem because coordination is absolutely key to solving this crisis.”

In a bid to put interoperability on the national agenda, the FRC is calling upon President Bush to commit to solving “the nationwide public safety communications crisis within the next decade,” said an FRC news release issued on June 19. “Just as President John F. Kennedy in 1961 challenged the nation to send a man to the moon, the FRC believes President Bush can and should make a similar national commitment for full first responder interoperability and a national summit…”

Time for a Reality Check

The truth is that radio interoperability is a serious, important issue fighting for funding in a packed field of equally serious, important issues. As a result, it is only when disasters such as 9/11 and Katrina occur that interoperability moves up on the political agenda. For first responder agencies, the key is to capitalize on this raised awareness when it occurs to advance the interoperability cause. This may sound callous and crass, but it is simply the way politics and public fund allocations work, not just in America, but around the world. And it is why we have seen additional government interest and more money for radio interoperability since 9/11—like it or not.

Kennedy made his moon race pledge during the height of the Cold War, when Washington was desperate for a public relations victory over the Soviet Union. Such was the American public’s passion to beat the Soviets – bolstered by the “gee-whiz” aspects of space travel that played so well on TV—that the Apollo program was able to grab the huge share of federal dollars required to achieve Kennedy’s goal.

What few people know, however, is that Washington started to cut NASA’s budget by the mid-60s. In fact, “NASA’s appropriations peaked in fiscal 1965 at $5.25 billion and declined by $75 million and then $207 million in the following two fiscal years,” according to a NASA special publication, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” written by W. David Compton. “In the spring of 1967, NASA submitted a request for fiscal 1968 of $5.1 billion, which Congress cut by $517 million.”

By the time Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, the Apollo program was in the process of being wrapped up. Once the moon was reached and the space race had been “won,” two Apollo missions were subsequently canceled to save money, and the capability of returning to the moon was lost.

As result, winning an Apollo-style interoperability commitment from Bush may not be a good idea. The reason is that radio interoperability is not a tangible location like the moon, but an ever-shifting goal that changes as new technologies emerge to provide more capabilities to first responders.

To keep close to this moving target, all levels of government must be willing not just to address interoperability in its current context—getting incompatible radios to talk to each other—but to provide ongoing money and legislative guidance to ensure that emerging communications technologies are interoperable from the get-go. This is a much bigger goal than reaching the moon because it isn’t a one-shot deal. But it’s what has to happen if first responders are to have the interoperable communications they need and deserve today, and in the future.

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at jcareless5000@yahoo.com.


Published in Law and Order, Oct 2006

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