Public-safety officials urged to embrace innovation

The federal government must show leadership by providing funding and spectrum licenses, report on emergency communications says.

Public-safety officials at all levels of government must embrace innovative solutions for emergency communications systems capable of functioning across jurisdictions, according to a report released Tuesday.

The study by the Aspen Institute found that the American safety community needs to abandon specialized systems and equipment, and adopt new strategies that take advantage of solutions already being implemented by the private sector and the military.

By creating a "network of networks" across an Internet-based infrastructure, the safety community can work to develop cost-effective methods to allow for interoperable communications among emergency responders that can include existing radio systems.

"The system whereby local agencies operate their own information and communications technology to support their emergency services is a relic of an antiquated technology model," the report said. "This relic, unfortunately, is reinforced by prevailing cultural norms, current spectrum policy, the lack of incentives to migrate to a new model, and decentralized management."

According to the report, federal policymakers must create incentives for officials to dedicate themselves to systems that provide more functionality than dedicated land mobile radio networks. The federal government must provide leadership by providing funding and spectrum licenses, and that can pave the way for state governments to oversee the management of their own communications systems, the report said.

At a roundtable discussion Tuesday, Phil Weiser, the report's author and a University of Colorado law professor, said it will be particularly challenging to persuade leaders and emergency responders to think beyond existing specialized systems and focus on building toward those that leverage innovation. "It's going to be a hard transition," Weiser said.

David Aylward, director of the Comcare Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at improving emergency response, said the report's acknowledgement of opportunities to use technologies and systems that are not limited to traditional responders is revolutionary. He said he hopes it enlightens leaders to solutions they have not previously considered.

"There is not one state in the union where the governor is doing what this report calls for," he said.

Morgan O'Brien, chairman of the public-safety communications firm Cyren Call, said federal regulators need to acknowledge there is a slim amount of spectrum that can be used to support broadband for emergency responders. His firm has urged the FCC to establish a trust to license spectrum for safety communications.

He said the first thing the FCC's new Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau should do is take an inventory of spectrum. "The first thing they need to do is own up to that reality," he said. "It's going to be a resource fight."