Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 22, 2011

Are Clouds Getting in the Way?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 22, 2011

Judging solely from the tweets emanating from the Urban Area Security Conference this week, two topics were at the forefront of discussion in and between sessions: cuts in the number of metropolitan areas receiving funding (and indeed the nature and extent of homeland security funding cuts generally) and issues attending advanced technology. I find it hard to separate the two topics, especially in light of the fact that much of the discussion about technology at the conference seemed to focus on the central role vendors played in the conference proceedings.

In some circles (certainly not here) the term networking almost always involves sophisticated technology and considerable cost. You know one of these conversations is spinning out of control when terms like “cloud” no longer refer to the things that shield us from the sun and occasionally deposit rain on our heads.

LIke real clouds, these terms and the discussions in which they get exchanged often obscure much more fundamental problems. My favorite example of this is the ongoing discussion about public safety communications interoperability, especially the push now on in Washington to get a sizable chunk of 700 MHz  spectrum allocated to a nationwide public safety service, the centerpiece of which presumably will include secure broadband data.

Now it’s quite possible that I have already lost a few of you, because, as I said, these terms often have meanings far different from what you might expect. Let’s start with interoperability. I once thought this meant making it possible for police, fire, EMS, public works, and other agencies at all levels of government to exchange information about an incident to which they had all responded and to do so in whatever way was most appropriate. The key was sharing information.

An optimist would tell you I was at least partly right about that. But I am not that optimist, since I have yet to see any evidence that such a system exists in the wild.

Instead, interoperability has meant marrying up sometimes terribly outmoded or outdated technologies so people from different agencies can get together and talk about an incident if they happen to remember to use the technology in the way someone set it up when the time comes to use it. In most cases, the systems have become too complicated for the users to understand, and because they cost so much they rarely keep pace with the commercial-off-the-shelf equipment people buy and use for their own personal communications.

How many of you have been to an incident where a frustrated officer has pulled out her iPhone and texted or called a colleague rather than using a radio? If you haven’t seen this, you have surely seen someone at an incident pull their smartphone out and snap a few pictures of whatever is happening.

These days you don’t have to look very hard or listen very closely to see and hear arguments about how D-Block spectrum will revolutionize public safety communications and make it easier than ever before to communicate in a crisis. While I have no doubt that devices and services designed for this new spectrum will have impressive features, I am much less certain they will improve communications.

My reason for skepticism comes back to the first problem receiving attention at the UASI conference: money. The people who have it and can afford to spend it will determine what the rest of us can buy later. Perhaps fortuitously federal fingers are finding it harder to reach the wallet in Uncle Sam’s deep pockets just as this issue comes to a head.

Oddly enough, the dark clouds of fiscal austerity might be just what we need to whisk away the airy, bright and lofty clouds of “technological progress” impeding or at least obscuring our efforts to communicate. When money is scarce, people have to be a lot clearer about what they need now as opposed to what they want later. In addition, they have to be more open to alternatives and willing to adapt as opposed to simply adopting.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: The argument presented here emerges from my own first-hand experience and a quick reading of a handful of messages consisting of less than 140 characters sent by a handful of friends using an essentially free technology accessible to anyone. That strikes me as pretty effective communication for a very limited investment of time, money and effort.

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5 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 22, 2011 @ 1:11 am

Another terrific post from Mark! Disclosure: don’t own a cell phone. Wondering if the Blue Tooth in the ear will mark the First Responder Community Shortly? Also what is the role of metrics and data in response to various incidents and events? What are the critical bits of info and how are they categorized, made available, and analyzed? Should the objective be simplicity? Reliability? Inter-operability? Security? Who should be the experts on these subjects?

I long fought for FEMA to develop the capability to assist STATE and their local governments in communications efforts. This would also have included tariff issues in the old land line days. FEMA and DOD were the only two federal Executive Branch organizations to oppose the ATT Consent order in 1982. Why? Both had open contracts so they could tell ATT to do something and it did although billing sometimes came through years later and no real costing of tasks done in advance. In reality cost plus a no-no in federal procurement.
Wondering if other nation-states have mastered the world of modern communications in HS and EM better than USA?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 22, 2011 @ 5:12 am

Mark, friends in the British intelligence services have long argued the greatest threat to US intelligence is having too much money. Our huge budgets, the Brits argue, obscure the need to make tough choices and target our work — creatively and imaginatively — around meaningful priorities. Unfortunately, lack of money does not necessarily guarantee we will be more creative, imaginative, and insightful in making our choices in intelligence, homeland security, or anywhere.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 22, 2011 @ 7:28 am

Phil! Personally I believe that 16 different INTEL orgs as listed in Executive Order 12333 as amended is at least one two many.
And I find the confirmation vote on Leon Panetta for SECDEF that was 100-0 an interesting ratification of his time as Director CIA! Am I wrong?

One of my biggest accomplishments in 20 years at FEMA IMO was assisting in accurately listing procedural hoops and policy hoops that because never surmounted kept FEMA in the Reagan Presidential terms from being part of the INTEL community.

Was it the COUNTERINTELPRO ops that helped destroy the creds of the military in the 70′s? I believe a useful open source history of that failure exists and would be instructive for a DHS that is in fact part of the INTEL community.

It will be interesting to watch the new SECDEF as he manages in that role the 80% of the entire INTEL budget that is controlled by DOD! I believe whether or not the entirety of the INTEL budget is open sourced the amounts spent on domestic spying should be a matter of public record.

Well we (US) were once a Republic.

Comment by Jim Garrow

June 22, 2011 @ 7:30 am

Philip:

Your third sentence is the crystallized idea of why we on the local side are terrified of losing funding. We’ve worked with our partners and worry very much what those wahoos will do when forced to think creatively.

Is it better to have poorly conceived scattershot efforts, or to have laser-like focus on, potentially, the wrong thing?

[Ed. note: none of my partners are the wahoos I'm talking about. =)]

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 22, 2011 @ 8:25 am

Phil, I agree with your conclusion: budget cuts do not guarantee imaginative, innovative or intelligent choices. My point is simple: neither do the incredible and unprecedented investments we’ve been making.

The president’s stated formula (in SOTU address) prescribed a combination of investments in innovative new technology (primarily in the energy arena), education and infrastructure. In my humble opinion, the so-called innovate, educate and build strategy works better when the investments are smaller and sustained, and most probably conditioned on the sorts of partnership Jim referred too.

Bill, posts suggest a more considered approach by the federal government that aids state and local government in encouraging such partnerships so they can make their own investments.

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