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Back to Archives | Back to April 2004 Contents 

Special Focus: Wireless Public SAFEty Interoperable COMmunications: Safecom

By Harlin R. McEwen, Chief of Police (Retired), Ithaca, New York, and Chair, IACP Communications and Technology Committee


Ohio River, Indiana—As floodwaters from the Ohio River rose to record levels, the Department of Natural Resources, the Indiana National Guard, the State Emergency Management Agency, and the local law enforcement fought to protect the lives and property of people in dozens of southern Indiana communities, towns, and cities. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources,communication between the responding agencies was crucial to the rescue effort. However, the only interagency communications were public safety officials literally yelling to each other across the flooded river because their radio systems were incompatible.1


Stories from across the country mirror the experience at the Ohio River. Consider the common situation and the risk a police officer faces when detaining a driver suspected to be a wanted felon, potentially armed and dangerous. Calling for backup on the radio the officer now realizes the stop has taken place in a dead spot where no communications is available—no help, no backup aware of the situation, and no chance for support if the situation worsens, all because ability to communicate over the radio is lacking. In this situation, the officer needs nothing more than reliable mission-critical public safety communications and interoperability.

Inadequate and unreliable wireless communications problems have been plaguing public safety organizations for decades. As the law enforcement community is well aware, officers cannot perform their mission-critical duties when they lack interoperability. Police frequently are unable to share critical voice or data information by radio with each other, with surrounding jurisdictions, or with other public safety agencies. Whether in day-to-day operations or emergency response to large-scale incidents such as acts of terrorism and natural disasters, reliable mission-critical operable and interoperable communications are essential to protect the lives of officers and the public they serve.

According to a report done by the National Task Force on Interoperability, the public safety community has identified the following key issues that hamper public safety wireless communications today:


  • Incompatible and aging communications equipment

  • Limited and fragmented budget cycles and funding

  • Limited and fragmented planning and coordination

  • Limited and fragmented radio spectrum

  • Limited equipment standards



In short, the nation is heavily invested in an existing infrastructure that is largely incompatible. Many federal programs have attempted to address these issues, and many public safety groups have actively worked to do the same. However, these efforts at all levels of government and across various agencies were for the most part uncoordinated and hence not as productive as needed. Coordination of effort is needed.

What Is Safecom?

To address the need for a coordinated approach to public safety communications issues, the Office of Management and Budget established the Safecom as one of President Bush's 24 e-government initiatives.2 The Safecom program resides in the Research and Development Operations section of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.

Safecom is a public safety practitioner-driven program, with support and management provided by the federal government. The customer base includes more than 44,000 local and state public safety agencies and organizations. Federal customers include more than 100 agencies engaged in public safety disciplines such as law enforcement, firefighting, and disaster recovery. To ensure that the program is in touch with the needs of public safety, associations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police are actively involved in several facets of Safecom. The associations have direct input into Safecom's direction through their representation on the program's executive committee and advisory committee.

Mission: Safecom's mission is to serve as the umbrella program in the federal government to help local, tribal, state, and federal public safety agencies improve public safety response through more effective and efficient interoperable wireless communications. Communications interoperability is the ability of public safety agencies to talk across disciplines and jurisdictions via radio communications systems, exchanging voice or data or both with one another on demand, in real time, when needed and when authorized.

The Federal Government's Role: Although Safecom works closely with the state and local public safety community, the focus and sustaining leadership from the federal government is essential. The federal government needs to work as a full partner with state and local first responder agencies to help them achieve interoperability with each other and to help the federal government achieve interoperability with them. But leadership in Safecom must be a shared responsibility. Ninety percent of the nation's wireless infrastructure is owned by state and local agencies. Although the federal government has much to offer in technical assistance, funding, research, and development programs and projects, any federal initiative must first be a partnership with the representative leaders of the state and local public safety community.

As the umbrella program, Safecom is working in conjunction with other Federal initiatives, including the Department of Justice's Agile program at the National Institute of Justice. The Safecom and Agile leadership have committed to work together on a number of initiatives to significantly improve public safety communications interoperability. As part of the federal government's efforts to address public safety wireless communications interoperability in a more efficient way, the Public Safety Wireless Network Program (PSWN), has moved into Safecom and will no longer function as a separate program. Where appropriate, Safecom will continue initiatives begun under PSWN and also continue to bolster the partnerships created by the program.

What Needs to Happen?

As the example of the police officer in the communications dead spot illustrates, before interoperability can occur, reliable, mission-critical, agency-specific communications capable of meeting day-to-day operational needs is essential. Safecom recognizes that officers need to have this basic level of communications before planning the broader multijurisdictional and multidisciplinary interoperability necessary in such events as the Ohio River story. Accordingly, Safecom is addressing the intricately related issues of reliable day-to-day public safety communications as well as the more specialized issues related to communications interoperability.

Key issues were identified by members of the public safety communications community and developed into near-term and long-term initiatives and goals. The program has already realized progress in several of the initiatives.

Safecom's Near-Term Initiatives

Grant Guidance: The program has developed and plans to fully integrate guidance across all federal government programs that provide funding assistance to state and local public safety agencies.

Standards: These standards will support a rational migration to national interoperability.

National Handbook: Safecom will coordinate the development of a guide for local public safety communications users to assist in the planning and implementation of interoperable communications systems including a repository of commonly accepted public safety terminology for use on interoperability communications channels.

Interoperability Information Center: In addition to a programmatic Web site, Safecom will create an interoperable information center for public safety users that will act as a one-stop shop for public safety agencies. It will contain best practices, guidance, and information about grants and other services as need.

Demonstration Projects: The solution to the public safety interoperability problem will be driven upward from the local level. As a result, Safecom will work to seed innovative solutions, technologies, and approaches around the country. The best of these projects will serve as models for other areas.

Safecom's Long-Term Goals

Provide Policy Recommendations: Spectrum policy is an essential issue in the public safety communications arena. As a result, Safecom will play a key role in representing the views of local and state stakeholders on spectrum issues in the federal government by informing the Federal Communications Commission and other federal agencies of the impact of their policies on local and state public safety agencies. In addition, Safecom represents the voice of the state and local public safety community on the White House Spectrum Policy Initiative Task Force.

Develop a Technical Foundation:Safecom will work to develop the standards and define the requirements for interoperability that will guide industry as it develops solutions, and localities and states as they purchase such solutions. Safecom also will spur innovation by funding demonstration projects of new technologies and solutions.

Coordinate Funding Assistance: Safecom will help the federal government tie grant funding and direct funding for public safety communications to grant guidance. This guidance will include standards and requirements to ensure that localities and states are purchasing interoperable solutions.

Provide Technical Assistance: Many localities and states will need technical assistance to achieve the goal of interoperability. Safecom will develop and promote best practices, provide handbooks and publications, and provide technical support in the implementation of communications systems for local and state agencies.

To date among the accomplishments of Safecom is the development of guidance for public safety interoperability equipment grants to local, tribal, and state organizations adopted by FEMA and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services for their 2003 interoperable communications equipment funding programs. Also, the program has chartered and held the first meeting of the Federal Interagency Coordination Council, an interagency working group for federal programs and offices that support public safety communications issues by providing grants, technical assistance, standards development, and other types of resources. Agile and Safecom jointly developed the first draft of the statement of requirements for public safety interoperability for review by public safety representatives.

Objectives for 2005

With further input from the public safety community, Safecom and Agile have outlined a shared vision of how the world of public safety communications and interoperability will look in the next 18 months, five years, and 20 years. In doing so, the programs have established concrete and tangible goals that can motivate progress and by which to measure success. In the next 18 to 24 months Safecom is set to do the following:

  • Fully integrate grant guidance across federal grant programs with interoperable communications funding

  • Develop and operate an interoperable communications center on the Web that will allow public safety users to identify the best solutions for their jurisdiction

  • Develop and operate an interoperable communications grant clearinghouse on the Web

  • Develop a common nomenclature for public safety communications

  • Develop and promote technical assistance publications that include common interoperability terminology for public safety and further address communications-related issues to improve the use of incident command systems

  • Develop fully interoperable demonstrations across the United States and create interoperability models from the successful demonstrations

  • Continue to support the development of standards that will enable multijurisdictional and multidisciplinary interoperability

  • Identify innovative technologies to fund through demonstration projects

  • Finalize the statement of requirements for public safety interoperability

  • Create a baseline of communications interoperability for public safety

  • Represent local and state public safety spectrum needs as a participant on the White House Spectrum Policy Initiative Task Force, which will make recommendations to the president of the United States



Benefits from Safecom?

As a public safety practitioner-driven program, each of Safecom's efforts and initiatives is directed at benefiting law enforcement and the public safety community. One of the more obvious benefits for police chiefs is the creation of a one-stop shop for all public safety communication needs. This one-stop shop will provide a resource in the form of a Web portal where individual practitioners can access information and direction on technical assistance, grant guidance, and technical solutions. For public safety agencies lacking Internet access, Safecom will also provide outreach to practitioners through printed publications with the same information. Additionally, demonstration projects to evaluate existing and emerging technologies and methodologies will allow Safecom to create models for interoperable communications and provide funding, technical assistance and guidance to various regions around the country. Even the more policy-focused activities—such as developing standards, researching, developing, testing, and evaluating communications technologies; and the coordinating public safety communications federal funding and federal programs—ultimately serve the public safety community by ensuring the necessary resources and guidance are available for the achievement of communications interoperability.


These leading public safety organizations have issued a statement in support of the Safecom:
•     International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
•     Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCC)
•     National Sheriffs' Association (NSA)
•     Major County Sheriffs' Association (MCSA)
•     Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO)
•     International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC)
•     National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC)
•     National Association of Counties (NaCO)
•     National League of Cities (NLC)
•     U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM)


Helping Safecom Accomplish Its Mission

The participation and input from law enforcement and other public safety representatives are essential to the success of Safecom and communications interoperability for public safety. Things police chiefs can do to further the mission of communications interoperability include the following:


  • Recognize the need for multijurisdictional and multidisciplinary interoperable communications and take active steps to achieve interoperability in the service region

  • Keep Safecom informed of developing needs of the law enforcement community so that Safecom is better able to help meet them

  • Use the resources Safecom provides to help achieve interoperability by providing success stories and making communications status known and available to other jurisdictions

  • Use the Safecom grant guidance as requirements for system planning, procurement, improvement, and maintenance




1 The National Task Force on Interoperability, Why Can't We Talk? Working Together to Bridge the Communications Gap to Save Lives
2 See Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, E-Government Strategy: Implementing the President's Management Agenda for E-Government (Washington, D.C.: February 27, 2002):30; www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg/egovstrategy.pdf
A passage from this document reads as follows:

For public safety officials to be effective in their daily responsibilities, as well as before, during and after an emergency event, public safety agencies throughout all levels of government, i.e. federal, state and local, must be able to communicate with each other. This initiative would address the Nation's critical shortcomings in efforts by public safety agencies to achieve interoperability and eliminate redundant wireless communications infrastructures. At the same time, it would assist state and local interoperability and interoperability between federal public safety networks.

Value to Citizen: Coordinated public safety/law enforcement communication will result in saved lives, as well as better-managed disaster response. Consolidated networks will yield cost savings through reduction in communication devices, management overhead of multiple networks, maintenance and training.

Value to the Government: Billions of dollars could be saved through a right-sized set of consolidated, interoperable federal networks, linked to state wireless networks, resulting in a reduction in communications infrastructure, overhead, maintenance and training.


 

From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 4, April 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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