DHS science chief backs digital solution to communications woes

A universal digital communications backbone could help emergency responders nationwide stay in touch with one another.

A top Homeland Security Department official said Thursday he has arrived at a conceptual solution for addressing communications barriers among federal, state and local emergency responders.

The decades-long problem can be tackled through a universal digital communications backbone capable of linking currently incompatible systems, said Jay Cohen, the recently confirmed undersecretary for science and technology at DHS. He spoke during a Washington conference on information-sharing strategies sponsored by the Arlington, Va., Association for Enterprise Integration.

Police, fire and emergency response agencies, which often labor with dated and incompatible communication devices such as land mobile radio handsets, could connect their systems to the universal backbone, Cohen said. A cottage industry offering communications protocol translators and emulators allowing connection to the standardized backbone would allow localities to "say, 'look, I've got this 10-year-old analog radio, and I'd like to be able to get on the backbone,' " Cohen said.

"I realize you may lose some fidelity getting on it and off it," because of inevitably imperfect translating mechanisms, he said.

A universal backbone would not clash with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff's recently announced plans to ensure that cities and states have interoperable radio equipment by 2008, Cohen said. Chertoff's plan is more of a jump-start to establishing communications interoperability, he said.

Federal attempts to resolve communications problems among first responders are not new, but they generally have not received a sustained commitment, and funding has been scarce. DHS' Project Safecom, an effort to establish communications standards, was housed within the Federal Emergency Management Agency and then moved to the Science and Technology Directorate. Now, following a congressional mandate, some of its responsibilities are being transferred to a newly created DHS Office of Emergency Communications.

"There are some people in S&T who are having separation anxiety as we ask them to take their baby and put it up for adoption … but I only work with volunteers," Cohen said.

The Science and Technology Directorate will retain responsibility for standards development, research and testing, Cohen said. It is responsible for standards development across the entire department, he emphasized.