DHS slow to adopt interoperable radio standards

The Homeland Security Department is not expected to adopt its first standard for interoperable, digital, wireless communications for first responders until the end of 2007 ? more than six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a new report from DHS inspector general Richard Skinner.

Since terrorists struck Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has been pressing for urgent action to make radios compatible for first responders. This would enable police, fire, medical and other emergency response officials from various agencies to talk to each other at an incident scene. To do so, radios, networks and their interfaces need to operate with common standards, even when manufactured by different companies.

To date, however, DHS has not issued interoperable communications standards. The agency's Science & Technology Directorate "has not adopted any standards for interoperable communications equipment," the report stated.

Instead of developing its own standards, the directorate's Office for Interoperability and Compatibility is supporting the Project 25 suite of eight standards being developed by the wireless industry.

However, Skinner found shortcomings with the department's approach.

"The nature of the voluntary, consensus-based process limits the availability and timeliness of standards for adoption by Science & Technology [S&T]. As a result, the efficiency by which S&T adopts standards is hindered," he wrote. Typically, industry efforts to build standards take five to eight years to come to fruition, the report said.

Only one of those eight anticipated Project 25 standards is finished, and DHS has not adopted it "because it is incomplete and only a single manufacturer builds Project 25 radio infrastructure," the report said.

Three more Project 25 interface standards are expected by late 2007, and it would be appropriate for DHS to adopt the Project 25 set of standards once that occurs, the report said.

Overall, the department faces numerous challenges in effectively promoting standards for first responders. The inspector general recommended that Science & Technology better track standards activity, determine methods by which standards adoption can be accelerated, establish performance measures and evaluate current equipment lists to ensure that they comply with applicable standards.

What's more, the department should reference standards in its grants to first responders, and require that all equipment purchased meets the appropriate standards.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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