GAO: Project Safecom going nowhere fast

A government initiative to improve communications among first responders at the federal, state and local levels "has made very limited progress," according to a report released today by the General Accounting Office.

GAO said that although slow progress is understandable given the complexity of the task, Project Safecom hasn't gotten far because of too many changes in project management and limited collaboration among agencies.

The initiative has been the responsibility of three different agencies and four management teams in its two and one-half year history.

Project Safecom is under control of the Homeland Security Department, which has shown better commitment to the program, according to GAO.

Funding for Safecom has been slow to arrive. According to the GAO report, the Homeland Security Department received only $17 million of the $34.9 million in fiscal 2003 funding allocated to Safecom by the Office of Budget and Management. The funding shortfall caused the department to delay some of its Safecom activities.

"The Department of Homeland Security fully agrees ? that a lack of interoperable communications hampers emergency response," said Anna Dixon, the department's GAO liaison, in a written response. Still, Dixon said, the department is confident it has taken significant steps to move the project forward.

According to Homeland Security, state and local agencies operate 90 percent of public safety communications infrastructure. Therefore, the department said it created a new governance structure to include state and local officials. It is also preparing to release a Public Safety Communications Statement of Requirements that will outline what first responders need to create interoperable communications systems, as well as an architectural framework that will detail how they will work.

In its report, GAO recommended that the Homeland Security Department develop written agreements with federal, state and local stakeholders that define each agency's responsibilities and commitments. The department said it already has written agreements with federal partners, including the Defense Department.

In addition, Homeland Security said it has created a balanced scorecard for measuring and tracking the project's progress.

"With adequate and consistent resources, DHS believes that Safecom will continue to be an effective program in addressing interoperability," Dixon wrote.

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