Report to aid DHS in closing emergency communications interoperability gaps

The recently released Homeland Security Department report card rating cities' progress on achieving interoperable emergency communications was cited by DHS secretary Michael Chertoff as a guide to further work in the field to plug gaps over the next two years rather than an indictment of laggard cities.

"We're going to identify the [interoperability performance] gaps and get them to where they need to be," Chertoff said, as he released the scorecards. "What we are talking about is getting beyond the basic level to advanced [interoperability preparedness]."

He cautioned against using the report card scores to compare cities' performances in the field across the board, because of varying regional characteristics. Citing such variable factors as the role of skyscrapers and land features in causing problems for radio communications, Chertoff warned that direct comparisons among cities would be "like comparing apples to oranges."

Chertoff noted that as urban rescue and law enforcement agencies increasingly use broadband communications such as video streams to coordinate their operations, legislation is an option to secure additional emergency operations bandwidth.

Asked how the report card results would influence the federal government's progress with its own interoperability project, the Integrated Wireless Network acquisition led by the Justice Department, Chertoff said, "We are going to build our interoperability so it fits into [state, local and regional] interoperability."

Neither Chertoff nor undersecretary for preparedness George W. Foresman responded to requests for opinions on the prospects of the IWN procurement, which calls for a multibillion-dollar federal commitment to a new nationwide voice and data law enforcement net.

The study found that all 75 cities and urban regions now have interoperability policies, and that regular exercises are needed to effectively link disparate systems.

The study pointed to governance ? the communications policies and protocols governing the interoperability functions ? as a weak point in the field.

Wilson P. Dizard III is a staff writer for Washington Technology's affiliate publication, Government Computer News.

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