USA Today had a great overview piece this week on the interoperability of first responder and law enforcement communications systems. The article does a good job of summarizing the key challenges of interoperability:
Local agencies often lack the money and radio frequencies needed to upgrade equipment. And federal aid is sorely limited. Even with more money and frequencies, other hurdles thwart seamless communication among first responders:
â€¢ City, county, state and federal agencies buy radio equipment for their own needs. Turf battles often keep neighboring agencies from buying compatible gear, or even from teaming in an emergency. The federal government can’t force all agencies in a state or region to buy the same gear.
â€¢ Safety agencies often fail to plan for interagency communication in disasters or to train officers in how to talk to their counterparts.
â€¢ Technology standards that would let disparate radio systems talk with each other have been delayed. Experts at least partly blame foot-dragging by radio manufacturers.
The upshot: Free-flowing communication among agencies in the USA won’t come till 2023. At least that’s the projection of Safecom, a program in the Homeland Security Department that promotes public-safety communication.
If the costs are really as high as indicated in this article (e.g. $150-300m for the state of Mississippi alone, and $60b nation-wide), I’m uncertain as to whether this is the best way to be spending money on homeland security. There’s certainly a need for gateways that can patch together different systems on the fly, but it’s questionable whether some of the brand new radio systems that states and cities are buying are good investments, especially if they are not interoperable on a national basis.
The “$60 billion” that might be spent in the next two decades needs to be carefully weighed against other needs, such as training for first responders and new terrorism prevention capabilities. Alternatively, interoperable communications might be a more feasible investment if the federal government were to lead this effort, create a national system that promotes efficiency and economies of scale, and reduce substantially these projected costs.
Update (1/2): Another good story on this topic.