Interoperability for Homeland Security


Today's USA Today has an article about how interoperability is a serious issue for first responders.   The problem is that, for years, different emergency agencies blithely operated in frequency and technology silos.  Now, they find that they need to work together and can't.  Furthermore, the cost of fixing the problem is terrifically high because it involves replacing millions and millions of dollars worth of gear.   This quote illustrates the problem:

In Boulder County, Colo., Sheriff George Epp keeps a ''fire cache'' of extra radios for other jurisdictions to use at wildfires and other joint operations. It would cost $6 million to replace his department's older VHF-band radios and join the state's 800-megahertz system, money the county doesn't have. So whenever Epp's patrols are on the border of neighboring jurisdictions with which Boulder County can't connect directly, his deputies carry extra radios that can.

Utah was blessed by the Olympics with a large infusion of federal funding related to emergency preparedness.  One of the outcomes of that was a 800MHz voice system along the Wasatch Front that provides for interoperability.  The state set up a quasi governmental agency called UCAN. UCAN has done a great job of creating a mobile voice network in the 800Mhz band.  They also set up a unified dispatch center called the Valley Emergency Communications Center.  Still, we face challenges (besides the obvious one of money):

  • We need more than just voice interoperability, we need data as well. 
  • We need interoperability outside the Wasatch Front (which accounts for 80% of the population, but only 20% of the land mass of the State).
  • We need to expand beyond a specific technology (800MHz).
  • We still have significant political problems on all fronts.

Interoperability in communications is just a specific instance of the kinds of technology issues that organizations are facing across the board and homeland security isn't the only driver.  We have a Governor who has the foresight and vision to tell us now, before the crisis, to enable interoperability.  The Governor's recent IT plan is aimed at creating a process to govern cross-agency projects to solve these exact kinds of problems.  We face a monumental challenge of creating and enabling interoperability throughout our systems.  We can't wait until we need to interoperate and then wring our hands and say that the cost of rebuilding is too high.