The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has identified seven Community Lifelines that enable the government to operate, businesses to function, and society to thrive: Safety and Security; Food, Water, Shelter; Health and Medical; Energy; Communications; Transportation; and Hazardous Material. All seven are necessary for operational success. However, often during major incidents, emergencies, or disasters, one, several, or all of these lifelines have been lost. By examining just one of these lifelines – Communications – there are numerous lessons to be learned, best practices discerned, and many gaps that need to be closed that would be geared towards shoring up a communications ecosystem that needs to be nurtured.
Emergency Communications Ecosystem – 4 Key Functions
The emergency communications ecosystem must be healthy for effective operations and situational awareness. This ecosystem includes anything organizationally that the first responder community and staff use, plus what people personally use with their family or friends. There are four key functions of this ecosystem:
Public-to-Government – The first function is the ability of the public to report to the government that they need help, which usually occurs through the Public Safety Answering Point, Emergency Communications Center, or 911 call system. The evolution of Next Generation 911 is currently in progress and may already include texting with video sharing in the future.
Government-to-Government – The second function is the government’s response. The government often responds to that call for help from dispatchers to first responders’ land mobile radios or computer-aided dispatch (CAD) to mobile data terminals. It could also be through CAD-to-CAD to other jurisdiction’s 911 centers requesting mutual aid assistance.
Government-to-Public – The third function is the government-to-public alert and warning system, which allows pertinent governmental agencies to send information to the public with instructions. For example, there may be a request for the public’s help (e.g., a child abduction emergency alert or critical missing seniors), or there may be a request for the public to take a particular action for their safety (e.g., evacuation, shelter in place, or avoidance of an area due to police activity).
Public-to-Public – The fourth function is the public’s interaction among themselves. The sharing of voice, data, and video during daily activities or to share information during an incident. This function allows the government to monitor the heartbeat of the community they serve. These communications, during an incident and after validation, can serve as an essential piece of information sharing and assist in the government-to-government response phase and government-to-public alert and warnings messaging.
Enabling all four functions involves supporting the ecosystem outdoors, indoors, and in subterranean areas (e.g., underground parking lots, Metro systems). For example, the Safer Buildings Coalition is one organization committed to solving communications issues indoors. Its mission is to make everyone feel safer inside, which can be accomplished by highlighting three pillars of its public safety communications objectives:
Mobile 911 calls need to provide locational accuracy even inside buildings.
Mass notifications must be able to penetrate structures.
First responder communications must work throughout entire facilities.
For a complete description of the emergency communication ecosystem, refer to the CISA’s National Emergency Communications Plan.
A critical factor in ensuring operational success is nurturing this ecosystem to remain healthy, robust, and, most importantly, available. This can be achieved by working closely with federal, state, and local government agencies and the private sector. However, no entity impacts the communications ecosystem more than the cellular industry. Society’s overreliance on cellphones and other technological devices – professionally and personally – threatens the communications ecosystem with extreme broadband demand, especially during mass gatherings. In addition, many people do not know their phone numbers, struggle to drive home without using a mobile app, or even have difficulty performing daily functions without the assistance of Siri, Alexa, or Google. A blue-sky day can quickly turn into a black one when disruptions occur in the communications ecosystem caused by physical or virtual threats, for example:
Critical infrastructure attack/collapse
Malware and ransomware
Misinformation and disinformation
Communications loss due to operator error or improper system/device maintenance
Inability to have additional or alternate power sources
Interference – unintentional (e.g., not properly setting up equipment) or intentional (e.g., radio frequency jammers)
Actions Needed to Create Resilient Communications
The District’s Office of the Statewide Interoperability Coordinator (SWIC) – in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Emergency Communications Division (ECD) – is currently working on creating a curriculum to standardize a program first established by the military called PACE (primary, alternate, contingency, emergency). The concept is simple – there needs to be a Plan B, C, and D for continuous communications (e.g., land mobile radios, email, landline, cellphone, satellite phones, runner/messenger utilization, or designated rally points). The District will pilot the initial classes, refine the course, and make it available through ECD and FEMA. PACE planning should be a concept not only used for planned events or no-notice incidents but for everyday activities.
A good communications strategy involves taking actions to prevent an inevitable loss of electrical power, technologies, and communications-related equipment.
Muscle memory is needed to transition from one communications capability to the next without a meltdown. In addition to establishing a plan, training and exercises will be vital to this development. The challenge will be to make everyday operators as comfortable with their contingency and emergency communications options as they are with their primary and alternate solutions.
Identifying & Addressing Unique Challenges
Identifying solutions to interoperability problems is a challenge faced by many SWICs across the country daily. To address this challenge in the District, the Office of the District of Columbia’s Statewide Interoperability Coordinator has created the District Communications Interoperability Strategy (DCIS).
This document is the product of numerous meetings, after-action reports review, interoperability communications survey results, governance, preparedness, and resource webinars involving District agencies, federal partners, National Capital Region stakeholders, industry, and the private sector.
The DCIS provides a roadmap on how the District will build a reliable, resilient, and interoperable communications ecosystem over the next four years. It outlines:
1 Vision: A reliable, resilient, and interoperable emergency communications ecosystem for the Nation’s Capital
4 Priorities: Connectivity, coverage, situational awareness/common operating picture, cybersecurity
72 actions required to accomplish the 12 goals
Dedicating to Close the Communication Gap
After-action reports, whether the incident is a natural disaster or a human-caused crisis, always account for shortcomings in dealing with communications, situational awareness, and information sharing. These common themes are documented repeatedly across all professions and disciplines and throughout every geographic locality. Agencies initiate the after-action process, create improvement plans, and gain the necessary commitment from leadership yet, as a first responder community, it is difficult to break the cycle or curse of being communications deficient.
A quote that applies to interoperability is from Gordon Graham, a world-renowned risk manager, who stated, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” Losing electrical power, modern technologies, and communications-related equipment at some point is inevitable and thus predictable, even though the exact timing is unknown. PACE planning, other contingency plans, alternate power sources (solar, battery backups, generators, hardline solutions), and public-private collaboration are a start for building resiliency.
The government leverages numerous technologies to drive success across many missions. By collaboratively examining emerging policy trends, technology needs, and changes in the risk environment, government agencies and technology companies can shape the development of products and advance systems integration to overcome current and future security, life safety, and communication challenges.
Communication involving voice, data, and video remains a predictable lifeline gap. Therefore, there must be a dedication to:
Committing resources for equipment maintenance and lifecycle replacements;
Fostering relationships with neighboring jurisdictions and key stakeholders;
Embracing change in the form of technological advancements;
Investing in the performance of personnel by training; and
Conducting exercises to build the necessary skill sets and reinforce muscle memory needed for performance, especially under stressful conditions.
Communications can become a predictable lifeline solution only after this battle rhythm has been established and continuously repeated over and over. Preparing for the worst must become part of the culture of the emergency communications ecosystem community, which means everyone.
Charles J. Guddemi
Charles J. Guddemi is the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency’s (HSEMA) statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC). He is responsible for coordinating interoperability and communications projects involving voice, data, and video. He chairs the District’s Interoperable Communications Committee and Cellular Industry/WiFi Provider Working Group. He serves as the secretary for the Statewide Interoperability Executives Council, is a member of the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators and FEMA’s Region III Regional Emergency Communications Coordinators Working Group. He also participates on several Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) committees and working groups. He joined HSEMA after a 25-year career with the United States Park Police (USPP). His assignments included working in Washington, D.C., New York Field Office, San Francisco Field Office, and the National Park Service Northeast Regional Headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He achieved the rank of deputy chief serving as the commander of the Services Division.