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FACT SHEET:  Achieving First Response Interoperability - a local, state and federal partnership


The challenge of communications interoperability has plagued public safety agencies for decades. Together, technology and leadership can give first responders and public safety agencies the ability to exchange voice and data on demand, in real time, when needed and as authorized. However, as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 made clear, true radio interoperability requires first responders to be able to communicate not just within their units, but also across disciplines and jurisdictions. Reaching the goal of full communications interoperability requires the coordinated efforts of leadership at the local, state, and federal levels.

Great progress has been made, but there is much more work to be done. The Department of Homeland Security is providing national leadership to a local, state, and federal partnership to ensure interoperability objectives are met in every community across the country. In addition to providing centralized guidance on the federal level, Homeland Security is also offering detailed management tools for state and local leaders committed to addressing this challenge within their own communities.  

Department of Homeland Security Interoperability Achievements Since 9/11/01


  • Created central office within Homeland Security for interoperability:  Today, Secretary Ridge formally unveiled the Department of Homeland Security?s Office of Interoperability and Compatibility that will strengthen the national partnership of local, state, and federal leadership to achieve emergency response interoperability in every community in the country. This new office, part of the Science & Technology directorate, will also expand the Department?s interoperability efforts beyond communications to include equipment, training, and others areas of need as required. The office will incorporate all Homeland Security interoperability programming, leveraging existing efforts to ensure better coordination and accountability for federal government activities relating to research and development, testing and evaluation, standards, technical assistance, training, and grant funding for interoperability.


  • Ensured emergency interoperability in high-threat cities:  While full communications interoperability remains a long-term goal, this summer Homeland Security implemented the RapidCom initiative to establish immediate capability for incident-level, interoperable emergency communications in ten high-threat urban area by September 30, 2004.  These ten areas are: Boston, Chicago, Houston, Jersey City, NJ.,  Los Angeles, Miami, National Capitol Region, D.C. New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The successes achieved in these cities are serving as a foundation for a replicable model of incident-level interoperability in other urban areas across the country.


  • Developed Statement of Technical Requirements:  In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security?s SAFECOM program released the first national Statement of Requirements (SoR) for Wireless Public Safety Communications and Interoperability.  For the first time, the country?s 50,000 public safety agencies have a document that defines future interoperability requirements for crucial voice and data communications in day-to-day, task force, and mutual aid operations. The SoR is driving the development of interface standards that will meet public safety practitioner needs, and offers industry a resource that can help it better align research and development efforts with user-community demand.  


  • Assisted states in acquiring necessary funding to improve interoperability: Since 9/11, the Administration has allocated $280 million specifically to address the ability of fire, emergency medical service, and law enforcement personnel to communicate with each other, across disciplines and jurisdictions.  In addition, over the past three years more than $13 billion has been provided to the states for emergency preparedness, funds which could be used for communications.


  • Established Federal Interagency Coordinating Committee: Homeland Security has created the first-ever council to coordinate all related programming of Federal agencies that manage efforts addressing interoperability ? those that build and operate federal systems, those that manage grants and technical assistance programs for state and local activities, and those that regulate the airwaves.


  • Established the NIMS Integration Center. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) Integration Center provides strategic direction for and oversight of the National Incident Management System, supporting both routine maintenance and continuous refinement of the system. The NIMS is a comprehensive incident response system developed by Homeland Security at the request of the President. The NIMS Integration Center oversees all aspects of the NIMS, including the development of standards and guidelines, and provides guidance and support to incident management and responder organizations as they implement the system. The Center also monitors national compliance with the NIMS and with National Response Plan responsibilities, standards and requirements. The NIMS Integration Center, managed by Homeland Security?s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is a multi-jurisdictional, multidisciplinary effort comprising federal stakeholders and state, local and tribal incident management and first responder organizations.


  • Developed standards for compatible personal protective gear:  Homeland Security also announced this year the first national set of standards for personal protective equipment that protects first responders against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents ? protecting them as they protect others. Through the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Small Business Innovation Research program, and other projects, the Department will continue to spur the development of additional standards and advances in communications, equipment, and training for first responders.  


Essential Elements of Progress in the Local, State, and Federal Partnership:

Local Communities:  The Department of Homeland Security has developed an ?Interoperability Continuum? as a tool-kit for local leaders. It illustrates how progress in communications interoperability can be measured at the local level by examining five key elements. In order to achieve both short- and long-term goals, it is best that these elements be addressed in a concurrent, coordinated approach. The Continuum is being distributed this week to each State Homeland Security Advisor and leaders of communities participating in the Department?s Urban Areas Security Initiative.


  • Increase Frequency of Use:  Frequency of use refers to how often interoperable communications technologies are used by first responders. In the near-term, interoperable communications should be available for planned events and emergency incidents, but the goal must be availability for systems that are used everyday for managing routine as well as emergency incidents.


  • Create Governance Structure:  A common governance structure with this focus will improve the policies, processes, and procedures for achieving interoperability by enhancing communication and coordination, establishing guidelines, and reducing internal jurisdictional conflicts. This structure should begin within individual agencies but strategically expand outwardly into a Regional Committee working with a Statewide Interoperability Committee.


  • Develop Standard Operating Procedures:  Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that have both operational and technical components are necessary as formal written guidelines for incident response are created.  Progress in this area entails the development of SOPs for individual agencies, then for multiple agencies working together for planned events and emergencies, and ultimately for regional procedures that conform to the response elements required in the National Incident Management System.


  • Integrate Technology Solutions:  Technology is clearly critical to achieving interoperability.  Local agencies are encouraged to plan for evolving interoperability solutions from limited options such as swapping radios to more sophisticated solutions such as gateways, patch panels, and shared systems.  


  • Conduct Training and Exercises:  In order for crisis-level interoperability to be achieved in the near-term and full interoperability to be achieved in the long-term, proper training and regular exercises are necessary for all users. Progress requires agency and locality movement from general training and single agency tabletop exercises to regular, regional interagency training and exercises.


State Governments:  Progress towards interoperability at the State level can be achieved through the development of a Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan. These Statewide plans, as modeled by the groundbreaking plan in the Commonwealth of Virginia, can be developed using the Department of Homeland Security?s ?Statewide Communications Interoperability Planning? methodology. An executive summary of this tool for statewide leaders is being distributed this week to each State Homeland Security Advisor and the leadership of the communities participating in the Department?s Urban Areas Security Initiative.


  • Establish key relationships and funding for Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan development:  The establishment of key relationships and agreements is a critical first step to undertaking a communications planning process. These relationships help provide both the funding and support necessary to implement a statewide communications solution. Homeland Security?s methodology outlines key areas to be considered in the development of these relationships, including the costs involved, identification of funding sources, and consideration of political and financial opportunities and barriers.


  • Create project plan and roadmap, and identify roles and responsibilities:  It is important to determine in advance the direction and process for the State?s strategic plan, and to develop a clear roadmap. The methodology details the careful preparation and planning necessary to account for the budget, resource, and timeline constraints that each State will face. This project plan can then be used to develop a project roadmap, a graphical depiction of the strategic planning process to clearly communicate resources, activities and deliverables of the project, and then to identify key roles and responsibilities of all involved players.


  • Recruit for and conduct focus group interviews:  By holding focus groups, a state can get the ?right? people involved, including a diverse representation of practitioners from across the major public safety disciplines of fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services. This is essential in order to gather the most useful and relevant information from the local public safety community.


  • Analyze data and conduct strategic planning session:  Successful adoption and implementation of the recommendations gathered during the focus group interviews hinges on bringing together key decision and policy makers in the state. A final strategic planning session allows focus group participants, and a larger portion of state leadership, to gain a comprehensive picture of the extent of communications interoperability across the state, to review the analysis of the data gathered during the interview process, and ultimately to determine initiatives that will feed directly into the structure and content of the statewide strategic plan.


  • Develop and begin implementation of Statewide Communications Interoperability Strategic Plan:  The statewide strategic plan leverages the technical expertise of the project team, the results of the focus group interviews, and the output of the strategic planning session. As a state develops a plan, it should establish bodies that will be accountable for statewide governance of the communications interoperability efforts.


Federal Government:  While much has been achieved since September 11, 2001, much remains to be done in realizing long-term interoperability in the coming years. The Administration has identified as priorities specific goals that are being addressed by Homeland Security?s new Office of Interoperability and Compatibility.


  • Working with FCC to clear frequencies for emergency use: This year the Department has worked with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to resolve one of the most vexing problems facing public safety communicators in the United States ? interference on critical public safety channels coming from cellular telephone systems.  Recent FCC rulings will open channels that were often unusable in emergencies, especially in major urban areas.


  • Ensuring all areas have emergency interoperability:  Building on the successes of RapidCom and SAFECOM, Homeland Security will continue to focus on ensuring that a minimum level of incident-level public safety communications interoperability is in place in communities  across the country.


  • Completing nationwide assessment of status of interoperability throughout the United States:  By the end of 2005, Homeland Security will complete a detailed baseline assessment of the nation?s communications interoperability strengths and shortfalls to help plan for the future and assess progress.