The Mid-Atlantic Region All Hazards Consortium (AHC) on May 31, 2007 held a one-day regional public safety communications and interoperability workshop at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. The gathering provided opportunities for regional partners to support each other as they prepare to meet the September 30, 2007, deadline for submission of preliminary Statewide Interoperable Communications Plans. These plans are key to receiving grants under the Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) program. Just under 100 attendees from state and local authorities, along with a number of vendor representatives, participated in this second such AHC event. In February New Jersey hosted a similar AHC workshop which addressed regional fusion centers. The AHC is a non-profit, funded by National Capital Region (NCR) Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants. The consortium is guided by the regional states of North Carolina, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. An invitation for this workshop also went to New York. The AHC mission is to help create new resources and funding opportunities for the states to support regional multi-state collaboration efforts among all the stakeholders from government, private sector, higher education and non-profit/volunteer organizations. While the workshop addressed a number of interoperability areas, from technology to operations, the focus was on statewide planning that will factor into this autumn’s peer review of PSIC grant applications. The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with DHS, will release program guidance and an application kit in mid-July and award almost $1 billion in PSIC funds by September 30, 2007. Final statewide plans and investment justifications in support of the grants will be due November 1. The PSIC fund will be used to assist state, local, and tribal governments and non-governmental public safety agencies in their implementation of interoperable communications during the transition to 700 MHz. The grants will be tied to statewide plans The objectives of the PSIC Grant Program include the adoption of advanced technologies and improving spectrum efficiency to fill interoperability gaps. NTIA and DHS provided information about the PSIC Grant Program earlier this year at a March 21-23 state planning workshop with the National Governors Association (NGA). Under PSIC guidelines, at least twenty percent of the cost of a project must be borne by the state, with the grant providing no more than eighty percent. At last month’s James Madison gathering, an NTIA official said that his agency will accept a twenty percent match using “in-kind” resources instead of pure funding. He also emphasized that in addition to using cost effective measures, the objectives of the program include the adoption of advanced technologies and improving spectrum efficiency, among other things. More detailed information about the PSIC Grant Program was made available at a public meeting held by NTIA on June 4th. An audio cast of the meeting along with the presentations made by PSIC program staff and Department of Commerce auditors is available on NTIA’s website. Addressing spectrum allocation, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) official told attendees that the “preliminary” FCC conclusion will allocate broadband to the bottom end of the 700 MHz spectrum blocks and narrowband to the top end. At another point, a DHS official corrected the perception that her department was mandating states to use the Communication Assets Survey and Mapping (CASM) tool toentify interoperability pathways and gaps in their grant submissions. CASM, she said, is not required but is “desired.” Throughout the day, state representatives shared a number of approaches and insights into implementing communications interoperability. Many acknowledged wrestling with the difficulties presented by an advancing field where standards development and technology development are moving forward at the same time. A number of vendors responded that it will be easier to develop technologies when they have an existing standard. Common to all states was the concern about funding strategies for system sustainability. In some cases, notably in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, legislatures have voted annual funding to support sustainability. Another common issue is the requirement for towers. Each state spoke of its own approaches to expensive and environmentally controversial land and tower acquisition which varied from tower leasing to renting and co-location. The challenge will intensify in the transition to a 700 MHz system. The District of Columbia, as a component of the NCR along with Maryland and Virginia, is benefiting through regional collaboration in the area of procurement. Larger regional procurements, said the District’s representative, make for more buying power to leverage better deals. All states voiced the obvious need for communications system redundancy to back up whatever backbone system is in place. No state should be exclusively reliant on only one communications system technology. States are studying alternative technologies. North Carolina, for example, is intrigued by the potential of software-defined radio. In one breakout session, a participant cited the critical operational importance of the Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP) program in a catastrophic event. She further noted the need to make it affordable for to the state and local authorities. Delaware has a supplementary communications strategy that draws on volunteer ham radio operators. In addressing operational issues, many attendees acknowledged the real need to improve communications between the local authorities and the state emergency operations center (EOC). Another consideration for statewide planning is integration of incident command system (ICS) communications with federal first responders. A third is the need for ICS to know the communications assets in the private sector. At one breakout session, the point was made that the situational awareness and command and control requirements may be served by the same system in a small incident, but such will not necessarily the case in a complex incident involving multiple sites. This insight must informentification of interoperability gaps and decisions on the merits of technology solutions. Pennsylvania spoke of its implementation of a statewide geographic information system/automated vehicle location (GIS/AVL) platform that allows the EOC to track state assets in an emergency. John M. Contestabile, the conference organizer and chair of the AHC Advisory Committee, said that “States are looking at linking Crisis Information Management Software (CIMS) into Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN).” Lastly, a number of participants emphasized the importance of reaching out to the vendor community in the planning stage, noting that each agency must have a robust continuity of operations/continuity of government (COOP/COG) plan that includes vendors. Emergency management agencies, however, must know of these stovepipe relations to be able to coordinate. Service vendors should participate in exercises; agencies should ensure they have service agreements with vendors for assistance during recovery. As a further consideration, all COOP plans should roll up to the state and regional levels to provide better leverage on the electric power utilities in the event of a power outage. Contestabile, who is the Maryland Department of Transportation’s director of the Office of Engineering, Procurement and Emergency Services, suggested one communications work-around when electric power is down: the use of incident command vehicles as part of recovery. The AHC expects to publish a workshop white paper within 60 days for circulation to attendees. It will also be available for downloading at the AHC site.
Links for Additional Information:
The All-Hazards Consortium http://www.ahcusa.org/
The Public Safety Interoperable Communications Program http://www.ntia.doc.gov/otiahome/psic/psicfaq.html
National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) http://www.ntia.doc.gov/otiahome/dtv/publicsafety.html
The DHS Communications Assay Survey and Mapping program www.ojp.usdoj.gov/odp/docs/ICTAP_Fact_Sheet.pdf
Software-defined radio systems http://www.sdrforum.org/
The Telecommunications Service Priority program http://www.fcc.gov/hspc/emergencytelecom.html
Delaware’s supplementary telecommunications strategy initiative http://www.commcorpsde.org/
John F. Morton
John F. Morton is the Strategic Advisor for DomPrep. He is also the Homeland Security Team Lead for the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). A member of the DomPrep team since its founding, he has served as managing editor for writer assignments and interviewer for scores of DomPrep audio interviews.