Interoperable Communications: How Long Will We Wait to Answer the Call?

July 1, 2003
The former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency discusses the inability of first reponders to communicate with each other due to the challenges of interoperability among communication systems.

by James Lee Witt

I have seen the devastation and felt the heartache and pain that disasters can cause. I know that if we could have communicated more quickly and easily that we could have lessened that pain. Many of us in the emergency management and public safety community have been concerned for years about the inability of first responders to communicate. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, this issue finally has been elevated to the national agenda.

There is frustration in the public safety community that lessons learned do not translate into action to strengthen America's first responders' ability to communicate with each other. Public safety communication problems are not limited to one city – it is a nation-wide problem that impacts preparedness and safety on the federal, state and local levels. Fire and police chiefs, mayors, county executives, governors and emergency management officials are worried about the level of preparedness for their jurisdictions and respective agencies, especially when it comes to the basic need of communicating.

I share their frustration and concern. During my eight years as the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), we responded on behalf of the American people to man-made and natural disasters in every state and territory. When we would arrive at a disaster, we discovered similar problems – first responders did not have the tools to communicate with each other. One of the lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing was the inability of federal, state and local responders to talk to each other. Seven years later, analyses of the response at the Pentagon reach the same conclusion – that no matter how well prepared and coordinated a response may be, the lack of rapid, instant communications hinders response efforts.

Defining Interoperability

Interoperable communications mean different things to different agencies, cities or states, depending on their current communication capabilities and needs. One definition we can agree on, however, is that interoperable communications is the ability for local, state and federal officials to talk with each other, share data and send

information when they need to. It is managed communications, determined and deployed by public safety organizations before a crisis occurs. It is day-to-day communications that easily shift to emergency communications for everyone at the scene of an incident.

Communications link the critical components in an emergency. It's like a wagon wheel with communications serving as the hub that allows everything else to get accomplished. With attention now focused on this issue, we have an opportunity to establish interoperable communications.

Interoperability: Short- and Long-Term Solutions

The tools to create interoperability exist today. State and local governments have considered many immediate, short-term solutions to create interoperable communications among their first responders. Each jurisdiction has different needs, requirements or geography that may dictate certain solutions. Some have used console patches that link different trunked systems. Others have designated certain radio channels as their interoperable channels. Some communities have used microwave links for data interoperability and have installed switches to allow different agencies to talk to each other.

Many states, such as Colorado, have begun the process of establishing a coordinated communications system as a long-term solution. Others have proposed building a nationwide land mobile radio system. While this system would create interoperability among users, the cost, estimated in the billions, is prohibitive. Also, if some state and local governments already have a system, they may not want to opt in, use or help pay for another system. Finally, with wireless technology changing so rapidly, a system like this may become obsolete in the time it takes to build out.

One innovative approach is to supplement existing land mobile radio systems with integrated digital wireless communications systems. I believe this approach combines the strengths of private systems with the strengths of commercial systems resulting in the best total system solution at the least cost.

By routing nonemergency responder communications through commercial systems, public safety organizations can increase capacity on their existing systems for critical communications. This will enable them to achieve higher speeds for data traffic, create redundancy in infrastructure, and implement leading-edge technology into their system.

Nextel Communications is an example of this bridge between the short and long term solutions. With a handset that is both a phone and a radio, Nextel provides instant communications to current systems on a separate, private digital network. The network, with its extensive data and voice technology capabilities, then serves as a long-term interoperability solution for first responder needs.

I also believe that government and business working together remains our best hope for immediate and long-term solutions. The private sector has the tools and solutions our public safety personnel need that will help keep our communities safe. We will have failed if we do not take this opportunity to build this partnership and provide the roadmap to interoperable communications.

These public-private partnerships already have begun. On September 11, 2001, New York City was using Nextel phones that allowed emergency management officials and the city's senior leadership to communicate and coordinate with one another as well as with the many responding agencies.

A successful partnership solution also was deployed with the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. More than 3,500 Nextel phones were distributed to the hundreds of public safety organizations and thousands of public safety officials protecting the games. From Utah Governor Mike Leavitt to the head of the Secret Service to the Salt Lake City police chief – all of them had the ability to create secure talk groups and to communicate instantly.

Public-private partnerships are, for some, a new way to look at a problem and possible solutions. At FEMA, I championed these partnerships when we started the successful program, Project Impact. We brought together government, business and community leaders to find ways to be better prepare for disasters and emergencies. The program created new relationships across jurisdictions and made efficient use of scarce planning, personnel and financial resources. We need to bring that same spirit of partnership and collaboration to achieve interoperable communications.

Barriers to Implementation

One of the problems of interoperability is making sure that federal funds get to the local responders. Congress recently appropriated $750 million in grants for the fire service and $600 million in grants for first responders, and promised hundreds of millions more in a wartime supplemental appropriation. Though these new investments are desperately needed, first responders and local government have been seeking greater flexibility to meet their unique communications needs. While the federal government needs to have administrative safeguards to insure grant funding accountability, many in state and local government are finding the prescriptive first responder grant program to be bureaucratic and an impediment to moving their public safety strategy forward.

Another obstacle is the historical and cultural barriers in migrating traditional command-and-control land mobile radio systems to advanced communications technology. There are rewards as well as risks in creating a public-private partnership for communications. While you may gain state-of-the-art technology that is more easily deployed and less expensive, public safety agencies may fear losing control of system design and operation.

Going Forward

It is time to step forward and help lead our cities, counties and states to achieve interoperability of public safety communications. It is time to find solutions to keep our communities safe. It has been my experience, both personally and professionally, that the hardest part of taking responsibility is deciding to do it. Of all the powerful natural or man-made forces I've confronted in my work – tornadoes, floods, bombings, earthquakes – I put inertia right up there with them. We have the tools, we have the mandate, we have the responsibility – if we do not act now, then when? n


Fire Service Grants (from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now the Emergency Preparedness and Response directorate of the Department of Homeland Security) aim to promote interoperable communications and will be awarded for integrated communications for base stations, computer-aided dispatch systems and communications gear. There is $750 million available for fire departments in all states and territories. The cost share for fire departments serving more than 50,000 people is 30 percent and those serving communities of less than 50,000 need to come up with a 10 percent non-federal cost share.

The $600 million available for first responders will be distributed by the Office of Domestic Preparedness in the Department of Justice. Its priorities include assistance to state and local jurisdictions for risk and needs assessment, equipment grants, training, exercise, support and technical assistance. There is no cost share for states receiving funds. Interoperable communications purchases must be Project 25/APCO 25 compliant and must have backward compatibility with existing digital and analog systems. This may restrict the ability of first responders to purchase exactly what they would need.

James Lee Witt served eight years as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton Administration. He is currently president of James Lee Witt Associates. One of its clients is Nextel Communications.

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