The Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) in the Directorate for National Protection and Programs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will soon be releasing the new National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP). OEC’s mission is, “to support and promote the ability of government officials and emergency responders to continue to communicate in the event of a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other disaster, and to ensure and advance interoperable emergency communications capabilities nationwide.”
The NECP will provide recommendations for ensuring interoperable emergency communications nationwide. At the same time, the ongoing DHS grants process which is driving interoperability at the state and local level in particular has been in motion for many months. First responders, public safety and emergency management personnel are well down the road with respect to ongoing and well-funded interoperability planning, and training, along with related equipment purchases.
As a result, OEC must be careful to roll out an NECP that is consistent with, and supportive of, current decisions and guidance involving policies, procedures and protocols which in turn greatly influence planning and training. To not introduce what is in effect a truly user-friendly NECP means that OEC may end up disrupting or somehow impeding current state and local efforts to address established interoperability goals.
In its March 2008 report on FEMA preparedness, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) emphasizes that, “there are no fewer than 10 federal interoperability initiatives underway. In light of the importance of interoperability and such large expenditures to strengthen it, the effective management of federal interoperability grants and programs is essential.”
The OIG report added that, “there is no single mechanism in place to link and orchestrate the numerous programs and initiatives underway, nor is there a clear line of accountability. Second, OEC is currently operating with a skeletal, full-time equivalent staff. OEC has assumed a large portion of responsibilities and programs directed at improving interoperable communications, and it requires additional staff and an adequate budget.”
The long-running interoperability program at DHS known as Project SAFECOM is now split between OEC which supports SAFECOM’s development of guidance, tools and templates, and the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) in the Science and Technology Directorate which supports SAFECOM-related research, development, testing, evaluation and standards.
Under the Interoperable Communications Technical Assistance Program (ICTAP), for example, OEC addresses technical issues, policy-making and operational concerns. Assessing and updating existing Tactical Interoperable Communications Plans (TICPs) have been an important offshoot of this activity. Along with TICPs, all states and territories have Statewide Communication Interoperability Plans (SCIPs) that have already been approved by DHS.
Besides the above-mentioned TICPs, SCIPs and ICTAP-related work, there is a Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) program and Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program (IECGP). IECGP is jointly run by FEMA and OEC with over $48 million awarded to states in FY08. PSIC grants will total over $1 Billion.
Although it is doubtful that anyone would want to challenge the need for the NECP, due to an unfortunate sequence of events, state and local governments may in fact be way out ahead of OEC in this instance, thanks to all these IECGP and soon PSIC grants. And for this reason, the NECP must adapt to this set of circumstances or risk annoying and possibly alienating state and local stakeholders.
Charlottesville (VA) Fire Chief Charles Werner shares good news in this respect. He chairs the SAFECOM Executive Committee, and serves on both the International Association of Fire Chiefs Communications Committee and Virginia’s Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee.
“When you see the NECP, it will begin to make sense. The NECP does not do anything to diminish the progress that has been made by the states and the SCIPs but moreover builds upon them to further define, and direct the future development of the SCIPs through realistic and measurable performance outcomes (not methods or technology),” he says. “OEC Director Chris Essid, who was Virginia’s former Interoperability Coordinator, is very aware of the states’ efforts and the dynamics. OEC and SAFECOM have been working directly with the development, review and approval of the SCIPs. The fact that every state and territory has submitted a plan demonstrates that this program is working and should be recognized as a phenomenal accomplishment.”
He points out that, among other things, more money is coming that is specifically available for additional planning at the state and local levels.
In conclusion, Chief Werner’s assurances deserve attention, given that the OEC has been described as understaffed and perhaps underfunded. Clearly the OEC has its hands full as it completes and implements the NECP which must be a user-friendly document above all else. And as OEC moves ahead, effective partnering with state and local governments is essential to ensure that the NECP is successful, and that other interoperability goals are quickly and easily achieved.
Peter J. Brown, a freelance writer from Maine, writes frequently about the role of satellite technology in disaster response and emergency management operations.