State and local governments must address both the technology and organizational issues that prohibit interoperability among public safety communications systems, says a new report by independent market analyst firm Datamonitor. According to the report "Government Technology: Fostering Interoperability in Public Safety Communications," spending by U.S. state and local governments on communication technology for first responders will rise from $3.2 billion in 2006 to $4.4 billion by 2011 as public safety agencies look for ways to collaborate and share information during critical situations.
Interoperability is the ability to communicate and exchange information across disciplines and jurisdictions in real time, on demand and when authorized. "Interoperability is critical to public safety since emergencies often require response from multiple organizations," says Kate McCurdy, government technology analyst with Datamonitor and author of the report. "A lack of coordination has been cited as a key challenge during both the rescue efforts of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. But even smaller-scale incidents require first responder interoperability as public safety agencies must work together to diminish the impact of traffic accidents, building fires and criminal investigations."
While state and local governments generally agree on the importance of developing interoperability, obstacles include limited funding for new purchases, insufficient coordination among independent organizations, and confusion over which technology approach to adopt.
"Public safety agencies tell Datamonitor that a lack of funding is their No. 1 obstacle to improving interoperability", says McCurdy. "But we cannot overlook the fact that collaboration and collective decision-making is difficult in an environment where individual agencies or jurisdictions typically purchase equipment independently. Add to this the fact that agencies receive few directives on which technologies will help them enhance interoperability and you have a situation where state and local governments recognize the need to improve interoperability but lack the means to do so."
According to Datamonitor's report, achieving communications interoperability for first responders requires both technology and organizational changes. In recent years, a number of technology solutions have emerged to address public safety's limited interoperability, such as Project 25 standards that enable radios to transmit signals regardless of manufacturer, and network-based technologies that interconnect existing radio systems. However, deploying technology will not resolve all first responder interoperability issues.
McCurdy says, "Agencies must also reform their policy and governance structures to support communication and collaboration with disparate organizations."