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Ensuring Good Connections

April 15, 2010
by Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Connections
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Many complain that media only report bad news and ignore the good, but the news coming out of the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) is nothing but good. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set out to complete its National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP) within 18 months of publishing the final version. Instead, by January 2010—the halfway point—the OEC had completed 80 percent of the plan’s milestones and was well on its way to finishing the final 20 percent long before the deadline. In addition, it has experienced success in forming groups that are delivering interoperability solutions and offering grants to communities with ideas about keeping the country’s borders secure.

Since its inception in 2007, the office has taken on one of the most challenging problems that has plagued the U.S. military services for decades: communications systems interoperability. As on the battlefield, the inability of first responders to communicate because of incompatible devices can be a matter of life or death. However, ensuring interoperability is a bit more challenging for the OEC: While each of the services must make certain its equipment can communicate with systems from up to four other branches of the military—including the U.S. Coast Guard when appropriate—the OEC must focus communities in 50 states and six territories toward this same goal. In addition, stakeholders include more than just these entities; members of the commercial sector also must be considered because they provide much of the communications equipment that first responders use.

Chris Essid, director, OEC, notes that as with most monumental tasks, the first step was developing a plan. So in 2008, the NECP became the first strategic plan directed not only at improving interoperability, operability and continuity of operations for emergency responders, but also creating metrics to assess the plan’s results.

He emphasizes that the 80 percent of the plan that has been completed was not the easiest group of items on the NECP list. In fact, one part of the OEC’s national plan took the number of Statewide Communications Interoperability Plans (SCIPs) from only eight nationwide to one in each state and territory. Although the OEC created the momentum, each SCIP continues to be locally driven, multijurisdictional and multidisciplined.

The OEC offers technical assistance for SCIP implementation to states, cities, localities and tribal communities. This assistance includes training, tools and onsite help. By February 2010, Essid’s office had received 223 requests for technical assistance from 52 states and territories.

The OEC also is set to deploy 10 regional coordinators—just as the Federal Emergency Management Agency has its 10 regional coordinators for disaster emergency communications—to enhance both stakeholder and governance planning efforts. “Interoperability is 90 percent coordination and 10 percent technology,” Essid states.

This year, members of the OEC will visit 60 cities to watch how well communications take place during planned events, he relates. The insights the office gains from these activities will enhance the OEC’s ability to assist communities in their efforts to sustain reliable interoperable emergency communications, he adds.

The OEC’s activities extend beyond the confines of U.S. communities. It participated in the signing of the bilateral telecommunications agreement between the United States and Mexico’s High-Level Consultative Commission on Telecommunications.

Like the DHS, the OEC is placing special attention on the issue of national border protection. It is the program office for the Border Interoperability Demonstration Project, a competitive grant program with a total of $25.5 million available to localities and groups. Communities interested in submitting an application for the grant money must do so no later than April 26, 2010.

Essid is so confident in his upwards of 50 federal staff members and 120 contractors that his office has already begun work on what is now affectionately being called “NECP 2.0.” This updated version will concentrate on adding a vision and strategy to employ emerging technologies. Working groups, comprising stakeholders, currently are meeting to collect input and requirements for the renovated plan, which will recognize additional partnerships in the emergency communications community such as hospitals, transportation and utilities, he explains.