Analysis: Standards needed for interoperability

The federal government should move quickly to set interoperability standards so that emergency communications and public safety agencies can coordinate effective responses to terrorist attacks and natural disasters, according to research released this week.

The biggest hurdle to interoperability is the lack of uniform radio and network standards that would allow states and different levels of government to communicate with each other, said Stephanie Atkinson, an analyst with the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan of Palo Alto, Calif.

"We need a standard for intergovernmental communications," she said. "The technology is out there."

To promote interoperability, the federal government is providing $3.7 billion for police, fire and emergency medical personnel, the so-called first responders, according to Frost & Sullivan.

Still, homeland security grants are just starting to trickle to the state and local levels, Frost & Sullivan said. Of this money, 20 percent goes to the states and 80 percent to the cities and counties. Jurisdictions that receive grants must provide 25 percent in matching funds.

Atkinson said the Department of Homeland Security, through Project Safecom, is seeking technology ideas from the private sector to eventually allow the nation's 44,000 public safety agencies to communicate.

While a number of state and local entities have established their own networks for emergency communications, there is no interstate network for them or for different levels of government to communicate with each other, she said.

The intergovernmental standards likely will be set by the departments of Homeland Security and Justice and the Federal Communications Commission, Atkinson said.

A range of problems keeps public safety and government agencies from communicating with each other. These include incompatible systems and insufficient radio spectrum availability, lack of funding and organizational issues.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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