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Improving Wireless Communications Interoperability

Written by Dr. David Boyd

The first responder community consists of over 61,000 public safety agencies across the United States, with more than 1,000 agencies in many states. According to a recent survey, nearly one-third of local public safety agencies have had problems communicating with other agencies in operational situations.

Improved interoperability across public safety agencies in your state will help officials from different jurisdictions and disciplines better coordinate their response—and save lives and property—in day-to-day missions, task force operations, and mass casualty incidents.

In the broadest sense, interoperability refers to the ability of public safety emergency responders to work seamlessly with other systems or products without special effort. Wireless communications interoperability, which is more specific, is the focus of SAFECOM and the subject of this article. It enables public safety officials to share information via voice and data signals on demand, in real time, when needed and as authorized.

In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the creation of the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC), which oversees interoperability research and development, testing and evaluation, standards, technical assistance, and grant guidance.

The OIC is housed within the Department’s Science and Technology Directorate under Systems Engineering and Development, and addresses critical interoperability issues relating to public safety and emergency response, including communications (SAFECOM), equipment, training, and other areas as needs are identified.

A program of the OIC, SAFECOM is charged with coordinating the efforts of more than 50,000 local, state, Federal, and tribal public safety agencies across the country working in the communications interoperability arena, and it is now working with state and local officials nationwide to support and facilitate their interoperability improvement efforts.

What sets SAFECOM apart from previous federal initiatives in this area is its commitment to a bottom-up approach. Interoperability needs should be defined locally, by users on the ground, and these very same practitioners should guide the development and implementation of interoperability solutions. After all, more than 90% of the public safety communications infrastructure in the United States is owned and operated by states and locales with distinct needs.

While every state and urban area should have a say in forging solutions that work for practitioners operating in its backyard, it does not make sense for every region to “re-invent the wheel.” Lessons learned in one state or metropolitan area can guide and streamline efforts in others. SAFECOM’s role in this paradigm is to facilitate information-sharing so that every jurisdiction can move forward as expeditiously as possible.

SAFECOM believes every state, in conjunction with local government, should prepare a comprehensive strategic plan as part of its interoperability improvement efforts. Recently, this approach proved highly successful in promoting coordination and cooperation among public safety officials across multiple jurisdictions and disciplines and at all levels of government in Virginia. The overview that follows is intended to explain and share the Virginia model, and critical lessons learned, with other states.

Virginia Strategic Planning Process

In late 2003, the public safety and political leaders in the Commonwealth of Virginia realized they needed to better coordinate interoperability improvement efforts—and quickly determined that creating a statewide strategic plan, with local public safety practitioner involvement, was an essential first step.

Governor Mark Warner, along Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall, created the Commonwealth Interoperability Coordinator position to guide this effort. Chris Essid, from the Office of the Secretary of Public Safety, was hired to serve in this role.

With SAFECOM’s support, Virginia began a planning process that included six regional focus group sessions to capture perspectives from the Commonwealth’s local public safety officials. According to many of the participants in the planning process, this focus on local direction was critical to the effort’s success. As Chris Essid observed, “Who better to identify what works and what does not work than the very same public safety responders who use radios on a daily basis to save lives?”

The data gathered during the focus group sessions laid the foundation for a final day-long strategic planning session, during which an overall vision and key initiatives were recommended by the leadership team. These recommendations resulted in a written strategic plan.

When the plan was complete, SAFECOM drafted a Statewide Communications Interoperability Planning (SCIP) Methodology to document Virginia’s ten-phase planning process and valuable lessons learned. Highlights of the Methodology are provided below, and the full text is available on the program website, www.safecomprogram.gov, to serve as a resource for all states seeking to enhance statewide communications interoperability.

SCIP Methodology

The Methodology offers detailed, step-by-step explanations for each of 10 essential planning phases—including critical tasks and lessons learned as noted above. In addition, the Methodology lays out timetables for completion of each phase, pertinent tasks that must completed, planning resources, graphics, sample documents, and templates of communication materials.

Phase I: Establish Key Relationships and Funding
This describes how forging relationships and agreements are critical to the communications planning process. This section calls out key areas for consideration in relationship development, including costs involved, identifying funding sources, and potential political and financial opportunities and barriers.

Phase II: Gather Information
This explains the importance of understanding current interoperability status and the existing initiatives both at the state and national level. This section provides guidelines and questions that are useful to gain knowledge on needs, challenges and features that comprise a state’s communications system.

Phase III: Create Project Plan and Roadmap
This provides guidelines for creating a project plan and roadmap. This section outlines procedures for planning the budget, creating the timeline, implementing activities, and completing project deliverables.

Phase IV: Identify Roles and Responsibilities
This describes the importance of creating specific roles and responsibilities for the project team. This section will help users identify who must be involved in order to develop the plan.

Phase V: Recruit Focus Group and Prepare Meeting
This explains how to identify focus group participants. This phase includes recommended criteria and statistical breakdowns for participation based on the experience of the Virginia Strategic Planning effort.

Phase VI: Conduct Focus Group Interviews
This recommends techniques for planning the focus group interviews. Included in this phase are suggestions for choosing a moderator, questions to structure the interviews, and guidelines for capturing session results.

Phase VII: Analyze Data and Prepare Strategic Planning
This outlines an approach for identifying patterns and themes found in the focus group interviews. The perspectives from local practitioner participants fuel recommendations for the development of a statewide strategic plan.

Phase VIII: Conduct Strategic Planning Session
This describes how to prepare for a final strategic planning session that will allow focus group participants and state leadership to gain a comprehensive picture of communications interoperability across the state. The final session feeds directly into the structure and content of the statewide strategic plan. This phase addresses who should be invited, session format and logistics, and communication strategies.

Phase IX: Develop Statewide Interoperability Plan
This describes the development of the statewide communications interoperability strategic plan. This section explains tasks, outputs, and resources needed to successfully execute this phase.

Phase X: Guidelines for First 90 Days of Implementation
This provides preliminary guidelines for implementing the strategic plan. Tasks include prioritization of initiatives, project plan development, funding, and enrollment of governing bodies to build interest in the plan.

Additional Guidance

In addition to the lessons learned (for example, tips for coordinating funding and resources, or how to contact potential practitioner “partners”) embedded within the SCIP Methodology, the SAFECOM/Virginia planning team offers the following five guidelines for state interoperability strategic planners.

First, include elected officials throughout the planning process. They should be made aware of the issues, as well as standard communications operating procedures. It proved valuable for the strategic planning team to gain an understanding of the elected officials’ perspective on public safety issues, as well as educating them on the local practitioners’ viewpoints.

Second, involve local practitioners throughout every phase of planning. Their participation drives the process. Gaining their commitment and understanding before the first phase is essential to creating and implementing a plan that reflects their input.

Third, explore multiple sources of funding. The planning team should research grants, state budgets, and available funds from national and state agencies.

Fourth, be aware of and tap the full variety of resources available for technical support including the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the National League of Cities, and national and state associations. Also consider the extended first responder community, which includes the Department of Transportation and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. They may be able to redirect funding and resources.

Fifth, be mindful of all of the factors that are critical to success. Technology and forging relationships is part of the answer, but funding, frequency of use, governance, standard operating procedures (SOP’s), and training and exercises are also vitally important.

For state public safety officials who are interested in developing a strategic plan for improved statewide interoperability, the SCIP Methodology is available as a .pdf file online.

DHS and SAFECOM Resources

As state and local officials undertake interoperability improvement efforts, they should be aware of additional services and resources available through SAFECOM and DHS.

On the technology front, SAFECOM recently developed a Statement of Requirements (SoR) to outline future technology needs for public safety wireless communications and interoperability. This living document defines public safety practitioner needs for technology interface standards and field functionality to help improve crucial voice and data communications in day-to-day, task force, and mutual aid operations.

Industry can use the SoR to help align their research and development efforts to meet these needs. The SoR is available on the Web at SAFECOM’s site. To help steer federal grant dollars to more effectively support interoperability improvement efforts, SAFECOM has created coordinated common grant guidance programs to help maximize the efficiency with which public safety communications related grant dollars are allocated and spent.

Dr. David G. Boyd is the Director of the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) and the Director of the SAFECOM Program Office. SAFECOM is the umbrella program within the federal government to coordinate the efforts of local, tribal, state, and federal public safety agencies working to improve public safety response through more effective, efficient, interoperable wireless communications. A program of the OIC, SAFECOM is managed by DHS and is housed in the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate.


Published in Law and Order, Jun 2005

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