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Back to Archives | Back to March 2006 Contents 

Communications: U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Safecom Landmark National Interoperability Baseline Survey Begins in 2006

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

he lack of interoperable wireless communications systems has been plaguing public safety organizations for decades. An October 2002 sniper shooting spree underscored the critical role interoperability plays for law enforcement officers to perform mission-critical duties. In that instance, local, state, and federal authorities participated in a cooperative effort to locate and arrest those responsible for a shooting spree that spanned two states and the District of Columbia. With more than 300 law enforcement officers responding to incidents across 125 miles, establishing on-scene and task force communications was a daunting task. Although some in-field operational solutions were employed, radio-based interoperability solutions would have increased the efficiency of the operations and drastically improved officer safety.1

Safecom, a communications program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC), is working to improve interoperable communications. Safecom works with its federal partners to provide research, development, testing, evaluation, guidance, tools, and templates on communications-related issues to local, state, and federal public safety agencies. OIC is managed by the Science and Technology Directorate's Office of Systems Engineering and Development.

In early 2006, the Safecom program will take a much-needed look at where the United States stands in achieving public safety interoperable communications. Safecom will conduct a landmark survey known as the National Interoperability Baseline Survey that has the potential to affect every police officer in the U.S. By providing a statistical snapshot of the level of interoperable communications among local, tribal, state, and federal public safety agencies, the survey will help public safety leaders and elected and appointed officials identify the type of interoperability initiatives that work, where gaps exist, and how agencies can most effectively allocate resources.

The National Interoperability Baseline Survey will provide a better knowledge base of the current state of interoperability across the nation. According to Dr. David Boyd, director of the OIC, "This study will provide information allowing us to build upon our vision for interoperable communications and to help define future milestones and cost projections."

First of Its Kind
The National Interoperability Baseline Survey is a ground- breaking assessment that will survey an unprecedented 37,000 law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical service (EMS) agencies. The survey will generate valuable insights by assessing the five elements critical to achieving interoperability:

  • Governance

  • Standard operating procedures

  • Technology

  • Training and exercises

  • Use of interoperable communications

The core facets of interoperability are depicted in Safecom's Interoperability Continuum graphic, which is designed to help the public safety community as well as local, tribal, state, and federal policy makers plan and implement interoperability solutions.

By assessing study findings across the five elements, DHS will be able to develop a more complete understanding of U.S. capacity for interoperability:

  • Assessment of governance will determine whether public safety and elected leaders come together to plan for, support, and promote interoperability.

  • Examination of standard operating procedures will unveil the degree to which public safety agencies have institutionalized procedures for interoperability.

  • Questions about technology will offer insight on the types of solutions used to achieve interoperability.

  • Queries about training and exercises will determine the degree to which first responders are trained on interoperability technologies and procedures.

  • A better understanding about usage of interoperable communications will provide information about how often and under what procedures interoperability is important.

In addition to 37,000 law enforcement, fire, and EMS agencies, the survey will poll state homeland security directors for the 50 states and the District of Columbia. State homeland security directors will complete a shorter version of the survey to provide a clearer picture of governance issues at the state level.
Safecom will also conduct limited follow-up site visits to gather supplementary qualitative and anecdotal information from the public safety community. The information collected during the site visits will reinforce and make possible a deeper understanding of online survey findings.

Practitioner-Driven Approach
In keeping with its practitioner-driven approach, Safecom worked with public safety community representatives from across the United States, including representatives from the law enforcement community, to develop the survey. A comprehensive definition of the five critical areas that determine an organization's interoperability served as the framework for the survey's 60 questions.

"At Safecom, we have found it is essential to have the input and guidance of public safety practitioners who deal with communications interoperability on a daily basis," said Boyd. "As we pulled this survey together, representatives from the IACP and the law enforcement community offered their extensive experience, insights, and perspectives on the issues."

Impact of Survey
For many years, representatives of the U.S. Congress, local, tribal, state, and federal public officials and the media have been asking for an assessment of the public safety interoperability situation. This survey will finally give everyone a better idea of the extent of the problem and allow for more adequate estimates of how long it may take and what funding may be required to improve the deficiencies.

Safecom plans to publish a complete analysis of the findings in September 2006. The program then plans to re-administer the survey on a recurring basis to measure the effectiveness of interoperability improvements made by local, tribal, state, and federal public safety agencies. ■

1 Safecom, "Washington, D.C., Area Sniper Investigation-Communications After-Action Report," September 2003, Washington, D.C., (, January 24, 2006.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 3, March 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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