DHS: Interoperable communications within nation's grasp

More than two-thirds of emergency response agencies across the United States use some degree of interoperable communications, letting them talk directly with other agencies, according to a new report from the Homeland Security Department's Safecom Program.

The report is based on the results of the National Interoperability Baseline Survey, which was distributed to 22,400 emergency response agencies nationwide in May. Responses were received from 6,819 agencies.

The agencies rated themselves on a detailed, 23-point interoperability continuum, developed by the Safecom program, which is DHS' unit that oversees improvements to first-responder communications. The scale measured features such as whether agencies have developed joint standard operating procedures with other agencies in the region, whether they have had regular regional training exercises and whether they use interoperable communications daily or only for planned events.

About a third of the respondents said they use interoperable communications in day-to-day operations and for extraordinary events. Another third said they use it only for extraordinary events.

The survey also found that large agencies were more advanced in interoperable communications than small agencies, and police, fire and medical agencies rank about the same in interoperability.

"The survey reinforces the fact that interoperability is achievable," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement. "That technology works today and is available. The willingness of emergency response leaders and local officials to make this issue their priority is what will continue to drive progress on one of 9/11's most important lessons."

The survey is being touted as the first of its type to assess national interoperability based on a comprehensive, detailed definition.

Communications interoperability became a high priority for emergency response agencies following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Interoperability allows police, fire and medical units from various jurisdictions to talk with one another by radio and to work together more effectively.

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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