Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 30, 2005

The challenge of interoperable communications

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on December 30, 2005

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:

• 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.

• Safety agencies often fail to plan for interagency communication in disasters or to train officers in how to talk to their counterparts.

• 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.

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Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » DHS CFO discusses challenges of interoperability

January 25, 2006 @ 6:58 pm

[…] I wrote about this issue in this post last month, linking in it to a USA Today story on the topic. I agree that there’s no easy answer to this issue, and think that developing expensive and brand new common systems might not be best use of homeland security funds if we look at it from a cost vs. security benefit perspective. Efforts should focus heavily on workaround tools that can virtually integrate existing systems rather than starting from scratch. […]


Comment by Nadine

April 27, 2006 @ 2:07 pm

Thank you guys for this post.
You should come and be part of the Global Security Challenge; it is an annual competition to find the most promising security technology startup worldwild. Maybe we could use one of your ideas to develop a project.

I hope to see you soon in our website.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Chertoff speaks on interoperable communications

May 8, 2006 @ 6:29 pm

[…] I wrote about this issue back in December, noting that while the issue of interoperable communications for first responders was important, there needed to be careful thought given to the issue of resource allocation in comparision with other homeland security needs. Based on Chertoff’s speech, I think the Department is taking an appropriately balanced approach to this issue – devoting substantial resources to it, but in a way that acknowledges that not every municipality in the nation needs an expensive state-of-the-art solution. […]

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