Using government data and news reports, the report released by the First Response Coalition (FRC), "The Imminent Storm 2006: Vulnerable Emergency Communication in Eight Hurricane Zone States," examines the interoperability efforts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
As forecasters predict an active and dangerous 2006 hurricane season and with lessons learned from last year's Hurricane Katrina, which claimed the lives of over 1,300 people in Louisiana and Mississippi, improving first responder communications has become imperative, said Steven Jones, executive director of the FRC.
"Once again, interoperability has received national attention following a disaster, but as we enter another potentially deadly hurricane season, first responders still can't talk to one another," Jones said.
The report details which of the eight states have implemented successful interoperability plans and which others have only begun to conduct needs assessments.
Mississippi has had 13 meetings to discuss how to merge its 40 radio systems and hasn't yet implemented a plan, the report said. Although Alabama's Emergency Management Agency provides pre-programmed radios to first responders during disasters, it has no statewide network. Georgia has just begun to deploy an $8 million voice-over- Internet protocol network, and a planned 800-megahertz communication system in North Carolina won't be finished until 2010, the report said.
Media reports indicate that representatives from the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety and the North Carolina Highway Patrol have classified the report as "incorrect" and "misleading." Calls made to both offices were not returned as well as calls made to agencies and departments from the other seven states.
In addition, the report also noted a large discrepancy on how much funding has been spent on interoperability within the states as there have been different reports showing a wide range of funding – between $200 million and $5 billion – appropriated for interoperability grants.
Another big concern in not being able to communicate is the danger it poses to the emergency responder as well.
"Not only are emergency worker not able to effectively coordinate rescue efforts, but they are compromising their individual safety since they don't have the luxury of having situational awareness," Jones said.
A classic example, Jones said, was during 9/11, when New York firefighters failed to receive evacuation notices from the New York Police Department because the two departments operated with two different radio technologies.
The report offers five recommendations to speed the arrival of communications interoperability for emergency responders:
- The Homeland Security Department's SAFECOM program must expeditiously complete the "National Interoperability Baseline Survey."
- The federal government should coordinate with state and local agencies to implement regional emergency communications interoperability.
- The federal government, states and localities must do a better job of tracking the disbursement and allocation of grant monies.
- If the nation is to make serious progress in achieving interoperability, there must be improvements in the ability to coordinate spending and the transparency of federal grants.
- There must be both coordination and cooperation between agencies and at various levels.