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Many Cities Can't Communicate In Emergencies

Mind-set is a main reason why nation's metropolitan areas are unable to communicate between jurisdictions during crises, according to an expert.

K.C. Jones

January 9, 2007

3 Min Read

The technology is out there, but emergency responders in many of the nation's metropolitan areas are still unable to communicate between jurisdictions during an emergency.

Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has awarded $2.9 billion to help state and local emergency responders improve interoperable communications. Last week, Homeland Security released scorecard assessments of communications interoperability in 75 metropolitan areas.

Although all of the areas have created policies for interoperable communications, the panels reported that only six areas were in advanced stages of implementing systems in all three rating areas to allow multijurisdictional communications within an hour of a major emergency. The problem is not the technology, according to Guy Clinch, Avaya's director of government solutions.

"Five years after 9/11, there is no technological reason emergency responders should be hindered by interoperability issues," Clinch said. "The real gaps in interoperability are caused by aging systems that are unable to connect every possible device to be part of the solution -- whether it's radios, desktop phones, cell phones, PDAs, or any other device. Newer technologies enable interoperability among all of these devices over nearly any type of network -- without major system replacements -- and provide what would be the best, most advanced possible." Five panels of experts on public safety, communications technology and interoperability used the Safecom Interoperability Continuum and Interoperability Maturity Assessment Model to rate governance, standard operating procedures, and use of equipment among emergency responders. Only Laramie County, Wyo.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Columbus, Ohio; St. Paul-Minneapolis; San Diego; and the District of Columbia and its suburbs received the highest ratings possible in all three areas.

"The 9/11 Commission identified interoperable communications as a major challenge, and many communities listened by taking the sometimes difficult steps necessary to close communication gaps among first responders," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a prepared statement. "Their experience proves that basic interoperability at the command level is achievable. We're committed to making this a priority in every major urban area, and will continue to push for closing these gaps by the end of 2008."

The 170-page report identified two major areas for improvement. Homeland Security recommended regular testing and exercises to link disparate systems and allow communications between responders from multiple jurisdictions, including state and federal responders. It also said responders cooperate in the field, but formal leadership and strategic planning across regions is less advanced.

Clinch said during an interview Tuesday that governments should expand their understanding of interoperability beyond communications between agencies to include communications across a variety of devices. Further, the ability to switch seamlessly from one mode of communications to another should be considered. He said that responders could model commercial enterprises and capitalize on technology that citizens use every day. For example, responders could be using technology to talk directly with people reporting emergencies as well as experts for events such as hazardous materials spills. They can also use applications that allow them to include or exclude parties at will. Text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, and voice over IP could be used when traditional radio and phone systems go down.

To do that, they would have to break through their own turf wars and competition between companies with inflexible proprietary technology and turn to flexible and adaptable systems with open standards, Clinch said. Existing equipment can be used in conjunction with newer methods if vendors work together, he added. Those improvements could drive changes that would let citizens send snapshots and video to emergency workers so they could better assess their response to situations.

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