Talk to me
While terrorist acts on U.S. soil notoriously exposed weaknesses in the way governments and first-responders communicate and operate, many other challenges have been uncovered that stand in the way of preparing for terrorist events, natural disasters and even daily operations. Old-school turf wars, political tug-of-wars and institutionalized bureaucratic standoffs are impeding progress toward the goal of smoothly working together to protect against and respond to emergencies. At the heart of the issue remains the oft-repeated question: What is the point of upgrading communication technology if public officials cannot settle who is in charge and what procedures to follow?
Technology can do only so much
Prompted by the “what-not-to-do” lessons from Oklahoma City, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and to some extent, the disparate information gathering and sharing practices of the Iraq war, local and state governments have been expanding communications and data sharing. Most jurisdictions are now privy to federal money earmarked for superior radio systems and digital communications devices. First responders often are equipped with mobile data units in their vehicles, and partnerships have been formed to allow interagency data exchanges.
While governments continue to work with vendors on developing appropriate tools, technology is no longer the sole impediment to true interoperability — people are. “All of the equipment, all of the high-tech computer systems, all of the radio systems, that technology is there; it’s on the market and is ready to be purchased,” says Ron Wiborg, contracts and grants manager of the Hennepin County, Minn., Department of Corrections and vice chair of the National Association of Counties Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee. “The issue on first responder interoperability deals more with politics than it does with technology. It’s a matter of getting through the political hurdles so that cities and counties can get together and make a plan.”
The problem is a simple one, and an old one. Governments tend to be guarded about their information and best practices, which blocks progress when they are forced to work together. “The non-technology obstacles [to interoperability] are more challenging and are more prevalent around the country,” says Bellevue, Wash., Police Chief Jim Montgomery. “Among the police departments at the local, state and federal level, there are still moments when we can be pretty proprietary with our information. And, there is a certain desire to want to hang on to it and not necessarily share it with an open hand like we really should.”
Being close-lipped about equipment specs and functions can delay response if multiple agencies show up on an emergency scene to help. “Will our fire hoses hook up to each other and work together as a system? Do our self-contained breathing apparatus air bottles switch out? Does the police department’s bomb X-ray work the same in the neighboring department?” says Kansas City, Mo., Fire Chief Richard “Smokey” Dyer. “All those things come down to being interoperable, and many times we have a lot of people, especially communications systems managers, thinking it only involves voice and data communication.”
In Kansas City, a metropolitan area that encompasses 15 counties in two states, striking regional agreements to improve public safety has been an excruciating project. Dyer cites the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant project as a step in the right direction, but a process heavy with burdens. The project selects 150 high-threat metropolitan areas to receive funds — $2.1 billion has been allocated through UASI grants since fiscal year 2003 — that aid in paying for regional equipment, training and planning needs. But the federal grants require regional plans.
“We need to sit down and define our highest levels of threat and our plans to address them. Then, we need to talk about the equipment and training we need to implement our plan. If those things can be resolved at the regional level, then the technology solutions for interoperability are going to come easily,” Dyer says. “But if we are locked into adversarial relationships in which the core city doesn’t want to sit at the table with the suburbs or with county government to discuss the UASI project and come up with a regional plan and regional decisions, then what is going to be our level of anticipation of success for interoperability communications? If you cannot work together, the ability to talk to each other serves little purpose.”
Even the federal government has acknowledged that working through old scores is critical for governments. The Local Law Enforcement Block Grant (LLEBG) program, which existed from 1996 to 2001, provided funds to jurisdictions for criminal justice projects. Each jurisdiction eligible for funding within a county submitted its own application.
Congress replaced LLEBG with the Justice Assistance Grant program (JAG) in 2005. Under the JAG legislation, the federal government mandated that one jurisdiction within a county has to submit the master application for all eligible jurisdictions. “What’s interesting about this whole concept is that it’s the federal government recognizing that there has to be some joint communications and joint planning among local jurisdictions,” Wiborg says. “And, basically, what the law says is that if you all can’t agree on how to spend the money, none of you get anything.”
Although local governments have made strides in training and planning for improved radio and digital communications, they still have a great deal of challenges to address. But, progress comes slowly. “I think people would be shocked to find out how far we have not come [since 9/11],” says Alan Shark, executive director of the Washington-based Public Technology Institute (PTI).
Shark advocates frequent practice drills and exercises to simulate scenarios, including evacuating people stranded in hospitals and schools after a major hurricane, extinguishing a warehouse fire that is emitting toxic fumes, responding to an airliner that misses a runway and hits a house, or working through a fuel-supply crisis caused by pipeline tampering. “Weaknesses are best discovered when communities do exercises,” he says. “Practice drills are very revealing, and it’s critical to not only have responders participate but to have people observing who are focused on asking, ‘What would make this better? What are the inherent problems in this?’”
Cities and counties also need to plan for business continuity in the event that government facilities become incapacitated, Wiborg says. They need an inventory of nearby community resources — such as churches, schools, senior citizen centers and YMCAs — that could serve as backup facilities for an indefinite period of time. “For many, many years, cities and counties have had joint-powers agreements or mutual aid compacts with neighboring jurisdictions for law enforcement or fire response to a major incident or disaster,” he says. “But, if your courthouse is destroyed, how do you continue operations of the county, which become even more important after a disaster than they were before?”
According to Dyer, civic involvement is key to improving regional cooperation. “There are a lot of places that are very comfortable just working within their own government, and if there’s cooperation and communication between the various departments just within that local government, then everybody’s satisfied,” he says. “But that’s not what’s going to work on 9/11.”
Even small jurisdictions, which may be sold on the notion that major terrorist events only strike large cities, should make an effort to participate in discussions with other communities and consider the possibility that they will be involved somehow, Dyer says. “The top management and policy makers in cities and counties who are not participating in conferences, who are not demanding that their departments participate in regional efforts, are part of the problem of holding back interoperability,” he says. “There are some people who tell us they don’t participate because their manager doesn’t see it as a priority and doesn’t like them being out of the office attending and participating in those regional efforts. To me, these are obstacles that are being created at the local level. Interoperability is not going to be mailed to you.”
For Wiborg, local leadership by one or two people can make all the difference. He advocates appointing someone with a special dedication to forming inter-jurisdictional relationships. “We’ve got to keep pressure on this issue and develop a plan for interoperability that goes far beyond just that of first responders,” he says. “The really key thing if you want to make this happen at your county or city level is to find a champion on the county board or city council that’s willing to say, ‘I’ll take responsibility, I’ll keep up the pressure on this, I’ll make this happen.’ If you don’t find a champion, you’re going to be doing an awful lot of extra work.”
Wiborg also urges state and county organizations to foster improved relationships and interoperability education. “Local government associations like the League of Cities and the National Association of Counties have to make it a priority to inform their members that interoperability goes beyond radio communications between first responders,” he says. “It’s incumbent on state and national associations to push that with their membership and urge them to deal with these problems.”
For many communities, old problems can be resolved by making simple, grassroots inroads through education and collaboration. “What will resolve these issues? Time, becoming more enlightened, talking about it,” Montgomery says. “The mechanics of sharing information are now pretty easy. If we can just get past the human factors.”
Lynn Peisner is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.
The hard work continues on radio rebanding
Because cell phone calls can interfere with public safety radio channels, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in 2005 that cell phone carriers must transmit a safe distance away from public safety channels on the radio spectrum. “Rebanding” is reorganizing the 800 megahertz (MHz) radio band, with public safety users in the lower portion and commercial cellular-type systems in the upper portion. When rebanding is complete, the two user groups will be separated by an expansion band and a guard band. Reston, Va.-based Sprint Nextel, which caused most of the interference, will vacate the 800 MHz band entirely. As part of a legal agreement, the company will pay all the rebanding costs for each licensee and in exchange will receive 10 MHz of spectrum in the 1.9 gigahertz band.
The FCC appointed Tysons Corner, Va.-based Transition Administrator (TA) to manage the rebanding efforts. The TA divided the project into four “waves,” each consisting of two “stages.” The waves determine the order in which the 55 National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC) regions reband. City and county public safety officials are expected to first negotiate and sign a Frequency Reconfiguration Agreement (FRA) with Sprint Nextel and then commence changing the frequencies they use by retuning, reprogramming or replacing radios and/or other parts of their systems. The actual implementation for a particular city or county is unique and depends on the size, complexity, and special needs of that system.
Since the voluntary negotiation period began in June 2005, 794 FRAs have been reached between Sprint Nextel and licensees. According to TA, stage one of rebanding is on schedule and should be complete by March 2007. Currently, 72 percent of stage one licensees report that their physical retuning is complete. With the exception of border areas that will have special frequency plans because of negotiations with neighboring countries, most non-public safety licensees are on their way to clearing channels 1 through 120 of the 800 MHz band to make room for public safety agencies to move in. The focus of the program is now on stage two, which is moving public safety systems.
Stage two has proven more difficult as public safety agencies are encountering stumbling blocks in their negotiations with Sprint Nextel. Their negotiations and relocations are more complicated as a result of many factors, among them the need for more detailed planning, for planning funding — which has been difficult to obtain even with the promise of reimbursement — and the requirement to preserve critical interoperability and mutual aid agreements between systems and regions during reconfiguration.
Sprint Nextel has made motions toward a formal request to the FCC to freeze the 800 MHz rebanding timetable for two years to allow public safety agencies more time to plan, but that is creating tension among public safety officials. The Daytona Beach, Fla.-based Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) criticized the company’s understanding of the delays public safety entities are encountering during rebanding, according to a news release. APCO states that delays occur mainly because of contract difficulties between Sprint Nextel, not because public safety officials are uncommitted to rebanding. APCO also asserts that until rebanding is complete, interference is still a problem on public safety channels.
— Lynn Peisner