The time is now for emergency management
Demand and funding grow for better communications, information sharing and tighter command structures, but challenges remain
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Sep 05, 2008
Volunteer firefighter Peter Howard
joins in the teamwork easily each
time he responds to emergencies
in Boxford, Mass. But in his role as vice
president of wireless engineering at
General Dynamics Wireless Services,
Howard has found that emergency services'
long-standing practices sometimes are
a barrier to the adoption of new products
Traditional vendors still wield great
influence, and work cultures are slow to
change, Howard said. "It is not the easiest
market," he added.
Nonetheless, state and local emergency
management and response technology is a
promising and dynamic marketplace that
has been reinvigorated in recent years by
an influx of new technologies and billions
of dollars in federal Homeland Security
This year, DHS distributed $1.8 billion
to state, local and tribal agencies for emergency
preparedness equipment, training
and planning. Similar amounts have
flowed each year since 2003, shortly
after the department was created after the
2001 terrorist attacks. Another
$291 million this year is going to emergency
"Federal grants have provided acceleration
in this market," said Bruce Walker,
vice president of strategic planning at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Information
Technology division.MONEY DRAWS NEW PLAYERS
The inflow of money has helped strengthen
the focus on emergency management and
response needs. With more dollars available
and new products being developed, traditional
vendors have been joined by a plethora
of new companies, with systems integrators
taking on the largest projects.
The 2001 terrorist attacks, followed four
years later by Hurricane Katrina, struck an
unprecedented one-two punch at traditional
ways of preparing for and responding to
major disasters and forced a rewriting of
the rules regarding which technologies are
One of the biggest changes is the expectation
that multiple jurisdictions will be
involved in a coordinated response to a
major disaster. Many cities have been laying
the groundwork for this collaboration with
their suburban partners, although most
have not yet been put to the test.
People now also anticipate better communication,
sharing of information and
tighter command structures among agencies
within a single jurisdiction, and in
many communities, the availability and use
of data play a more important role in
response more than in the past.
"We have seen a lot of new products
developed quickly," said Todd Eckman, chief
technology officer at Lockheed Martin
Corp.'s Advanced Technology and Services
Solutions in Richland, Wash. "It is a very
Recent years have brought major technical
advances, with digital radios and networks
replacing older analog systems.
"There has been a convergence of radio frequency
and IT," Howard said. "It is a huge
challenge to get those disciplines to work
As a result, there has been an explosion in
products and services in this market: public safety voice interoperability; wireless accessibility
of geographic, video and other data;
situational awareness; common operating
pictures and resource-tracking tools for
emergency operations centers; and public
warning systems and networks, among
With more than 50,000 local fire, police
and emergency management agencies in the
United States, the market is fragmented and
difficult to define. Products must be tailored
to the unique needs of each community's
demographic and geographic profile ? a
hurricane zone needs different preparations
from a wildfire hazard area.NOT SO TECH SAVVY
Although fire, police and emergency management
agencies are slowly moving toward
a digitized future, there have been some cultural
obstacles to overcome.
"First responders tend to be cautious," said
Peter Erickson, principal of Technology
Frontiers, a consulting firm in Washington.
"Lives are on the line, and smart decisions
need to be made." The result is that first
responders tend to be slow in adopting new
technologies and creating the needed procedures,
"The challenge for vendors is that we have
these wonderful technologies that we have
developed, but the policies and procedures
are not in place," Erickson said.
On the other hand, sorting out vendors'
offerings can be confusing and time-consuming.
"There are lots of new products
out there ? some good, some not so good.
Some are user-friendly, and some are way
too complicated," said Mark Ghilarducci, vice
president of the western region office of
James Lee Witt Associates, an emergency
management consulting firm.
"There is no silver bullet out there,"
Ghilarducci said. "But at the baseline, we
have had numerous enhancements."
Fire and police departments historically
have not been regarded as high-tech centers.
Neither have emergency management agencies
and emergency operations centers.
"After Hurricane Katrina, the requests for
help were coming over the fax machine," he
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, first
responder capabilities became national news. Congress and White House officials
called for greater interoperability and
information sharing. The money spigot
was turned on.RADIO GOES DIGITAL
A chief focus has been to make first responder
communications more robust and more
interoperable. A portion of the DHS grant
money is available to radio systems, and
earlier this year, the National Telecommunications
Administration (NTIA) distributed a special
$1 billion fund for emergency radio interoperability
to state and local agencies. The
money has had some impact.
"I am seeing the NTIA money going to
reinforce statewide interoperability plans,"
Erickson said. "Mostly, it is in the infancy
stages. People are being very careful about
creating new architectures."
New digitized products are replacing analog
systems, with solutions that often rely on
and combine voice over IP; wireless broadband,
software-defined radios; interoperable
handsets; radio network patchworking
devices; ad hoc mesh networks; commercial
cell phones; and satellite phones.
By now, most large cities and several
states have upgraded their public safety
voice communications, while smaller cities
are following suit with less expensive solutions
such as patchworking boxes to connect
disparate radio systems. A slew of new
handsets and software-based radios are providing
The industry-developed P-25 suite of
technical standards has been helpful but
slow to develop. Meanwhile, the Federal
Communications Commission attempted to
create a nationwide wireless broadband network
for first responders through a D Block
radio spectrum auction in January, but
there were no bidders. FCC is considering
whether to hold a second auction.
"Clearly, there is a strong appetite for
wireless communications," said John
Kneuer, senior vice president of strategic
planning at Rivada Networks, a provider of
mobile voice and data networks. Its clients
include the Northern Command and
Louisiana Army National Guard.
Many larger cities want customized
wireless broadband solutions rather than a
one-size-fits-all solution nationwide, he
"The D Block approach doesn't work
well for urban canyons," Walker said.
But for many smaller communities,
secure mobile wireless broadband is highly
"Developing a low-cost, high-bandwidth
communications device is the greatest
unmet need," Erickson said.Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer with Washington Technology.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.