Emergency Responders Can't Communicate, DHS Warns - InformationWeek

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5/11/2006
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Emergency Responders Can't Communicate, DHS Warns

Despite a lot of money being thrown at the problem, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this week that the goal of emergency-system interoperability across the nation is still a goal, not a reality.

The federal government has given more than $2.1 billion to states for interoperable communications since 2003, but many emergency responders still cannot communicate with each other, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned at a conference in Washington.

Chertoff said training, leadership, and standards for new technology are the keys to coordinating efforts during and after emergencies, and his goal is for interoperability across the nation.

At the conference on tactical interoperable communications on Monday, Chertoff outlined steps that local, regional and state governments must take to improve the situation, which crippled rescue efforts after terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

He said employees must be trained on proper use of equipment; policies must be improved so commanders from different departments and agencies can communicate and the government will establish technology standards.

"When I was trying to decide what kind of videocassette recorder to buy many years ago, and they had Betamax and they had VHS, and people were trying to figure out what was the standard to go forward, there was a lack of guidance," he said. "We don't want to have you guys buying Betamax if VHS is the way to go forward. The idea is ultimately not to dictate a particular form of product or a particular vendor, but rather to lay down some standards and lay down some guidance about the requirements you think you need to develop a common technology and ensure that your investments going forward, buying your next generation of radios, will promote interoperability rather than greater barriers to communication."

Chertoff said that a task force of first responders, not representatives from telecommunications companies, would form within two months and begin identifying requirements.

"And I want to be very clear about this. It is not up to industry to come to us and tell us what we need. It is up to us to define the requirements that we need for our first responders and then tell industry, here's the solution you've got to come up with," he said.

The Department of Homeland Security will set functional requirements and performance standards for the next generation of communications equipment after gaining input from emergency responders. It will also use scorecards to measure performance of departments. Eventually, responders across the nation should be able to communicate, he said.

Though current technology allows for interoperability and responders in some areas have access to it, first responders have not received enough training, agreed on standards for all departments, or instituted procedures that would allow them all to use it, Chertoff said.

Chertoff said interoperability was not an issue after Hurricane Katrina because emergency responders could not communicate at all.

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