Losing ground on interoperability

Unofficial poll of CIOs finds states woefully behind

Gary Robinson, CIO of Washington state, speaks at NASCIO's event in Washington June 1.

Rick Steele

Government interoperability and disaster preparedness experts painted a bleak picture of how much progress states have made toward communications interoperability since Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast last year.

Fewer than a third of the 350 attendees of a National Association of State Chief Information Officers conference this month said states were better prepared today to deal with a major disaster than they were before Katrina.

In the same poll at NASCIO's Midyear Conference in Washington, 54 percent disagreed that states are better prepared, while 15 percent strongly disagreed that states are better prepared to face a disaster.

Attendees also said they believe the federal government is no better prepared today than it was pre-Katrina. Only 21 percent agreed that the federal government is better prepared, while 39 percent disagreed and 40 percent strongly disagreed.

To gain a true picture of where states are on implementing interoperable communications that let first-responder agencies in the same region communicate and share data through common systems and equipment, the Homeland Security Department in May sent them a survey, said Tony Frater, deputy director of the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility at DHS. The agency expects to have the findings by July.

"Hopefully, we'll get a really good snapshot of capabilities," Frater said.

One state at the leading edge of interoperable communications is Utah, which built such a system in preparation for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. That was a challenge, said Phil Bates, IT director for Utah's Public Safety Department.
"We found early on that without incentives, we had a hard time getting the local governments to participate," Bates said.

To get a statewide system, Utah offered local governments partial funding, he said. Now, Utah is trying to persuade its neighboring states to join in a regional communications network, he said.

The nation's capital is another success story. Washington had the monumental task of linking its own first responders with other local governments and various federal government, civilian and military organizations in the metropolitan area. The city has deployed an interoperable radio network for voice communications to serve the National Capital Region, but it still lacks data interoperability for first responders, said Robert LeGrande, deputy chief technology officer for Washington. Because of that gap, city officials view it as no more than an interim solution, he said.

"We really need to move to another platform and address it as one," LeGrande said.

The Washington Wireless Accelerated Responder Network, a broadband network meant to be the area's next-generation interoperable communications system, is being tested by 200 area users. Because so many entities are involved, developing a system requires much cooperation, LeGrande said, equating it to "19 family members getting an inheritance, and having to meet every three weeks to discuss what to do with it."

Interoperability isn't the only worry for state policymakers and technology officials. Budgets that have been relatively hefty in recent years may be on the brink of tightening.

Money for IT projects will start drying up in 2007 or 2008 when federal assistance to states is projected to shrink, according to Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, and Bill Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Technology officials and their industry partners will need to fight harder to get governors' endorsements and legislatures' approvals for projects.

There will be money for projects, said John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices, but IT improvements aren't at the top of most governors' wish lists. More likely to lead their lists: education, health care, economic competitiveness and energy development, he said.

Conference attendees echoed those opinions in informal polls. During a panel on fiscal health, CIOs were asked how state funds likely would be spent this year; 44 percent said on health care projects, and 38 percent said spending would be dictated by local politics. Only 4 percent of the vote went to IT projects that have been waiting on funding.

"The problem is there are a lot of competing expenditures," Pattison said. One way to get approval for IT will be to link them to health care, education and other improvement projects that are more politically appetizing and offer tangible results, he said.

Another way would be to pitch IT as capital improvement projects to beef up a state's infrastructure, Thomasian said. He also advised CIOs to actively engage their governor's policy office, saying "The onus is on you to say [to the governors], 'This is what you've got to look at.' "

For example, IT will be key in implementing the Real ID Act, which calls for improvements by May 2008 to state driver's licenses, issuance and information processes.

Staff Writer Ethan Butterfield can be reached at ebutterfield@postnewsweektech.com.

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