Prior to Congress creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) in April 2007, there was little in the way of coordination and planning efforts for interoperable emergency communications at the state level. Although some municipalities and large metropolitan areas had plans and policies in place, few areas had attempted to address the issue at the state level.
As the former statewide interoperability coordinator for Virginia, I am well aware of the magnitude of this level of planning and policy development, and the challenges that accompany it. Coordinating multiple jurisdictions operating at the local, county and state levels can be difficult enough. Factor into that difficulty the additional complications of merging disparate radio systems and frequencies, and the historical challenges that come with the usual turf wars that arise when you try to bring together fire, EMS, law enforcement and 9-1-1 to focus efforts on a single issue. All of these obstacles can severely hinder efforts to address interoperability at the state level if not addressed.
The most useful tool in addressing these issues is the Statewide Communication Interoperability Plan. Each of the 56 US States and territories currently has a statewide plan in place. The statewide plan is a locally driven, multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary plan to enhance emergency communications.
Statewide plans provide strategic direction and alignment for those responsible for interoperable communications at the state, regional and local levels. The plans outline and define the current and future vision for emergency communications interoperability within the state or territory. They are also specifically designed to align state-level efforts with the goals, milestones and objectives of the National Emergency Communications Plan.
To be successful, statewide plans must be living documents updated on an annual basis, or as frequently as needed under the guidance of the statewide interoperability coordinator and the statewide interoperability governing body in each state and territory.
Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network
As most of you are aware, in February President Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. The signing of this legislation into law was a big win for public safety, because it culminated years of hard work and advocacy by reallocating the D Block to public safety.
But the act has many other components that also affect public safety. The components getting the most attention from public safety since the act was signed are the provisions that provide authorization and funding necessary to establish a nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN). Securing this authorization and funding were the first steps in accomplishing one of the last outstanding recommendations of the 9/11 Commission: the creation of a nationwide interoperable communications network.
To guide these efforts, the act provides up to $7 billion to build the network and creates a nationwide governance structure to oversee the network’s development and deployment. The act also provides network access to federal, state and local public safety, and secondary users, such as utility companies, transportation and other critical infrastructure providers.
The governance body established by the act is the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), a new independent authority within the Department of Commerce tasked with constructing and operating the network.
The act stipulates there will be three members of FirstNet: the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney General and the director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The remaining 12 members—set to be named by Aug. 20—will represent public safety, technology and finance, with at least three being state, local and tribal representatives, and at least three representing public safety.
State & Local Preparations
By the time this year’s APCO Conference comes to a close, the public safety community will know the members of the FirstNet Board, and the Board will begin moving forward to carry out its responsibilities. As these efforts progress over the next few weeks and months, there will remain a certain level of uncertainty, but there are some activities that can be conducted now to prepare for the future.
I mentioned that states should be routinely reviewing their statewide plans to address gaps and the need for updates. As efforts unfold for the nationwide network, states should be working with their statewide coordinators to incorporate broadband and other emerging technologies into their statewide plans.
As part of that process, states should also ensure their statewide governance structure is prepared to address the development and deployment of a nationwide network. I would highly encourage all 56 U.S. states and territories to review the current makeup of their statewide interoperability governing bodies, and determine if they truly have the best representation based on these recent developments.
As the nationwide network is deployed, the work of these governing bodies will incorporate new technology roles. States should explore including state-level chief information officer and chief technology officer representation into these governing bodies. That level of expertise and authority will be essential to ensuring your state is truly prepared.
Most importantly, state and local agencies should maintain a constant state of vigilance as the efforts to develop and deploy the NPSBN move forward. Monitor these developments and ensure your agency is prepared for recommendations and advancements as they are released. As always, OEC will assist you with this educational process. Our mission is to ensure state and local public safety and government is represented in the process.
As the DHS lead for development and deployment of the nationwide network, OEC’s role will continue to evolve as efforts progress. OEC has been DHS’s hub for state and local stakeholder engagement on interoperable emergency communications since we were created by Congress five years ago. This mission is one of the many reasons we are representing DHS in these efforts and will continue to do so in the future.
We can assist states with incorporating broadband into statewide plans, educating governance bodies on the importance of these preparations, and by simply sharing information and resources. Whatever the need—broadband or otherwise—OEC is poised to continue to support our stakeholders throughout this process. But most importantly, public safety needs to remain united in our efforts to meet our goal. We find ourselves at this point today because public safety remained coordinated and focused on an outcome. We must maintain that momentum and continue working together, now and for years to come.
This article was originally published in the August 2012 issue of APCO’s Public Safety Communications.