Interoperable Communications Show Dramatic Improvement Since 9/11, But Problems Remain

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10 Years after 9/11 Commission Recommended it, FCC Finds Funds for National First Responder Communications Network

Originally published at AllGov by Noel  Brinkerhoff on  11/21/14

A decade after the 9/11 Commission suggested creating a unified communications network for first responders to use during emergencies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has finally collected enough money to move forward.

The commission recommended that the federal government create a way for police and firefighters from different jurisdictions to communicate with each other in a crisis—something they couldn’t do during the response to the 9/11 attacks.

Congress got into the act two years ago by passing legislation that authorized the FCC to reserve certain broadcast frequencies for public safety use.

The FCC, though, was left on its own to find funding for the new network, called FirstNet. So the commission auctioned off a band of wireless frequencies to telecommunications companies, which netted more than $11 billion to establish FirstNet.

The FCC only needs about $7 billion for the project, so the rest of the money is expected to go towards paying down the national debt.

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Dish Network all registered to bid on the wireless spectrum, but the FCC has not announced the winners of the auction.


For additional background and context regarding interoperable communications, please see:

A decade after 9/11, first responder crews still need updated communication equipment


 

Interoperable Communications Show Dramatic Improvement Since 9/11, But Problems Remain

Originally published at Homeland Security Today by Amanda Vicinanzo on 11/20/14

Image of map of 911 tracking first responders
Map by MGMT.design

From the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to Hurricane Katrina and, most recently, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the nation has struggled to keep pace with the ever-evolving emergency communications landscape.

The House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing this week to assess the progress of interoperable communications since 9/11. Although federal and state officials testifying at the hearing emphasized many challenges lay ahead, much progress has been made in first responders’ communications capabilities.

The 9/11 Commission report—the official report of the events leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks—examined challenges to first response efforts in the wake of communications failures at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. To improve communications during future events, the 9/11 Commission recommended the creation of an interoperable public safety communications network.

Congress did not address the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation until after Hurricane Katrina, which exposed significant gaps in communications capabilities. The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 to provide the first nationwide public safety broadband network for law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical service professionals and other public safety entities.

However, Subcommittee Chairman Susan W. Brooks (R-Ind.) stated that, “Despite all these programs and investments, interoperable communications continues to be a challenge during disaster response, as evidenced during the response to Hurricane Sandy and the Navy Yard shooting. We must continue to work to ensure first responders have the tools they need to communicate.”

TJ Kennedy, acting general manager of FirstNet, briefed the subcommittee on FirstNet’s progress in the development of an interoperable nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN). According to Kennedy, FirstNet has dramatically improved its efforts in the past 12 months—going from 4 to 83 employees; establishing headquarters in Reston, Virginia; and establishing a technical office in Boulder Colorado.

In March 2014, FirstNet outlined long-term objectives in its “FirstNet Strategic Program Roadmap,” including beginning formal in-person state consultations, releasing a draft request for comprehensive network proposals for comment, releasing draft requests for certain network and equipment services proposals for comment and initiating a public notice and comment process on certain program procedures, policies and statutory interpretations.

FirstNet has made considerable progress in achieving these milestones. In September, First Net released a Request for Information (RFI) seeking input from industry on how to meet key program objectives in the creation, operation and maintenance of the NPSBN.

“We have received more than 120 responses to the RFI and are very encouraged with the interest it has generated,” Kennedy said.

FirstNet also created a consultation strategy to improve communications with states, tribes, local jurisdictions and federal departments and agencies. The goals of the strategy are designed to give states and stakeholders the opportunity to provide feedback, improve collaboration with states in collecting information for the deployment of the network and to maximize taxpayers ’investments in FirstNet.

FirstNet held a successful pilot consultation with the State of Maryland in July 2014, as well as additional consultation meetings in Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Utah, Puerto Rico and Iowa. Kennedy noted that FirstNet has planned “an aggressive state consultation meeting schedule in 2015.”

Although FirstNet has made great strides in the past year, much work still needs to be done before the initiative achieves its long-term objectives, particularly the delivery of advanced, resilient public safety wireless broadband services.

“This is a network that is urgently needed to increase the safety and capabilities of all public safety personnel and protect the American people, and we are committed to delivering it,” Kennedy stated.

Also testifying before the Subcommittee, Rear Admiral Ronald Hewitt, USCG (Ret.), director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC), told lawmakers there has been no shortage of reminders of the need for improved communications capabilities in the thirteen years since 9/11.

Responding to the need for an effective and efficient emergency response framework requires more than technology and equipment improvements alone.

“All of the critical factors for a successful interoperability solution—governance, standard operating procedures, training and exercises, the integration of systems into daily operations, in addition to technology—must continue to be addressed through the collective work of our programs,” Hewitt said.

Echoing Hewitt’s sentiments, Mark A. Grubb, director of the state of Delaware Division of Communications in the Department of Safety and Homeland Security and chairman of the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators (SWIC), stated, “Interoperability requires much more than just equipment — it’s really about people in disparate agencies and jurisdictions including each other in their planning processes.”

The SWIC works with emergency response leaders across all levels of government to implement a statewide strategic vision for interoperability. Grubb asserted states and territories must leverage SWIC in building out new emergency response capabilities, like FirstNet’s NPSBN.

Citing Steve Staffier, Massachusetts SWIC Coordinator and manager of the state’s communications and interoperability, Grubb said, “As I witnessed during the Boston Marathon bombings, even though we have all made significant investments in equipment and systems around the country, we still need help in education/training/outreach to the end users and key decision makers … and this requires SWIC and funding.”

Grubb believes lack of funding is causing SWIC — which plays a central role in a State’s emergency communications and interoperability efforts by working with first responders across all levels of government — to lose ground.

FirstNet has asked states to appoint a State Point of Contact (SPOC) to assist in the planning and implementation phases of the NPSBN. In 18 states and the District of Columbia, SWIC is also acting as the SPOC, and in 12 states, SWIC and SPOC both work within the same department.

Although SWIC plays a pivotal role in the ever-evolving emergency communications landscape, many states are struggling to continue to fund the SWIC position. Grubb urged states to not only find the funding, but also to increase the effectiveness of the position by placing SWIC high enough in the state’s structure that the individual can coordinate emergency efforts, prepare for emerging technologies and help ensure wise purchasing policy.

Grubb told the subcommittee “as you know, nothing in government gets done unless there is a champion, especially with communications interoperability, a problem that often seems to have no owner. The SWIC is the communications interoperability champion for the state and the nation. Let us not forget the painful lessons learned from a lack of interoperable communications during 9/11. It is in every state’s best interest to make effective use of this crucial position.”

Grubb also stated SWIC could not do anything without the support of DHS’s Office of Emergency Communications, which was established within the National Protection and Programs Directorate’s (NPPD) Office of Cybersecurity and Communications (CS&C) as part of the congressional response to the communications challenges faced during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

OEC has addressed gaps in emergency communications across the nation by leveraging the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program to help states and territories establish SWIC, as well as providing technical assistance to assist in the implementation of statewide plans.

In addition, OEC led the effort to establish the Congressionally-mandated Emergency Communications Preparedness Center to coordinate guidance for all agencies funding interoperability and emergency communications.

“Nationwide, the percentage of jurisdictions reporting formal interoperability standard operating procedures — those that are published and actively used by jurisdictions during incident responses — increased from 51 percent of respondents in 2006 to 86 percent in 2011,” Hewitt said, highlighting one of the OEC’s key successes.

Hewitt testified that the importance of the OEC’s role was highlighted by the success of emergency communications efforts during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings during which government officials and first responders had to rely on their training to quickly respond to the chaotic situation.

Emergency communications succeeded in the aftermath of the bombings due to the OEC’s pivotal role in planning, coordinating, training and exercising emergency response protocols before the Boston Marathon occurred.

“The response to the Boston Marathon bombings illustrated a rapidly changing landscape for emergency communications, one that involves not just traditional land mobile radio use by first responders, but also citizen communications and increased use of broadband or internet technologies,” Hewitt stated.

During and after the bombings, the Boston Police Department was able to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to communicate with the public and issue alerts and warnings. The FBI received information through video streams and tools like Google’s People Finder allowing exchange of information between citizens.

“We are proud of these accomplishments and the progress that they represent for our nation’s preparedness in emergency communications,” Hewitt said. “No list of accomplishments, however, can ever compare to seeing such work put to use during an actual event like the Boston Marathon bombings.”

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