Panel reviews integration of communications systems

While the Homeland Security Department has made strides with its SAFECOM program to coordinate wireless safety programs for the government, challenges remain to fostering communications among different systems, a department official said Wednesday.

"Our nation is heavily invested in an existing framework that is largely incompatible," SAFECOM Director David Boyd said in written testimony before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census. Despite the challenges, he said, SAFECOM has "accomplished a great deal in the short time [the department] has managed the program."

Those accomplishments include the RapidCom Initiative, which provides training to 10 urban areas in how to respond to emergency situations. The program is a "catalyst for these areas to begin to institutionalize routine training and exercises, governance meetings, standard operating procedures, and more frequent use of interoperable communications," Boyd said.

The road to interoperability is hampered, however, because "first responders" to emergencies lack standards to assess the nation's current wireless capabilities, according to the Government Accountability Office.

William Jenkins, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, said the fragmented federal grant structure for firefighters, police officers and other first responders does not support statewide plans to have the systems of emergency workers "talk" to each other. The structure of the grants does not require a long-term communications plan before grants are issued and contains only a one- or two-year performance period, he said.

"The federal and state governments lack a coordinated grant review process to ensure that funds allocated to local governments are used for communication projects that complement each other," he said. The federal government can provide the "leadership, long-term commitment and focus to help state and local governments" meet their communication goals.

SAFECOM expects to publish an architectural framework by the third quarter of fiscal 2005, Boyd said. It also closed a request for proposals period Tuesday for a means to develop an accurate assessment of the situation and expects to begin work no later than December, he said.

Officials also are working on federal coordination. SAFECOM developed a common grant guidance program, outlining grant eligibility and purpose, Boyd said.

John Muletta, chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, noted that "some of the challenges involved in bringing interoperability to public-safety systems are outside the scope of the FCC's authority, [but] the commission continues to take a leadership role in trying to resolve these challenges."

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