Collaborating on a Statewide Basis: Interview with OEC Director Chris Essid

Chris Essid is director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications (OEC). OEC was created by Congress in response to the communications challenges experienced following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the response to Hurricane Katrina. 

On Scene: IAFC members seem to be increasingly willing to work with other public-safety agencies to move interoperable communication forward. What are some of the most recent national trends you’re seeing in collaboration surrounding interoperability?

Essid: Public safety recognizes that disasters don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries. Natural disasters and acts of terrorism alike can impact multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions simultaneously. They can also be of such a scale that outside assistance may be needed for even the most well-prepared local public-safety system. 

Therefore, an increasing trend is greater collaboration among multiple jurisdictions and disciplines. We’re seeing more and more agencies bringing all the players together when they are developing plans and procedures to govern their response.

Statewide plans—aligning to the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP)—encourage public-safety disciplines of all types to come together and work as a team. Beyond those initial responders, it is important to include nontraditional or secondary responders in planning and preparedness efforts, such as public works, transportation and others. 

On Scene: What specific benefits can regional collaboration offer local fire departments and response agencies?

Essid: One of the most beneficial aspects of regional collaboration is the information sharing and networking that takes place before disasters, which leads to better incident response. It’s not uncommon for a public-safety agency to find that a neighboring jurisdiction or agency has experienced similar challenges. By establishing relationships with the other agencies in your region, you can share lessons learned and best practices that can be valuable resources.

The scene of an incident is not the place to be making introductions for the first time. Get to know your neighbors. Learn from their experiences and share yours. Both sides will gain, and the public you both serve and protect will benefit.    

On Scene: How is the current economic and political environment impacting collaboration on interoperability? For example, is the environment more divisive because everyone is looking out for their own or are communities and states more likely to pool their resources? Are states encouraging—or even mandating—that communities work together?

Essid: The current budget issues facing public safety are a reminder that coordination becomes even more essential during tough times in order to stretch resources most effectively. Federal, state, local and tribal jurisdictions across the nation are all looking for ways to do more with the resources available to them.

One way fire departments can do this is by collaborating with other agencies in your region. All 56 states and territories now have a statewide communication interoperability plan. These statewide plans are specifically designed to align emergency response agencies with the goals, objectives and initiatives of the NECP and to provide strategic direction for those responsible for interoperable emergency communications at the state, regional and local levels.

One of the basic tenets of these plans is the need for regional collaboration and information sharing. Local fire chiefs should reach out to their statewide coordinator to find additional opportunities for collaboration.

On Scene: What are some of the best practices you have seen in regional collaboration? What are some of the most common roadblocks?

Essid: Over the last five years, OEC has put an increasing emphasis on regional coordination. With input from our stakeholders, we’ve developed policy documents and case studies with recommendations for improved regional coordination.

We’ve also placed an OEC regional coordinator in each FEMA region to directly engage federal, state, local and tribal agencies and improve emergency communications capabilities. Because the regional coordinators work with stakeholders directly in their communities every day, they have an in-depth understanding of the needs of different communities across their regions.

The OEC regional coordinators also work with the statewide coordinators to establish regional interoperability councils, and the statewide coordinators have even developed a nationwide governance structure, the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators, to facilitate advancements in emergency communications capabilities.

The most common roadblock continues to be a lack of coordination among individuals. In addition, we’re facing a lack of resources and scarce funding. Ever-increasing budget cuts and loss of grant funding are impacting public safety and governments at every level.

Simultaneously, public-safety communications is being bombarded with emerging technologies, such as broadband and next-generation 9-1-1, while their primary infrastructure is aging and coming closer to being obsolete. The result is that agencies and jurisdictions—which are unable to address their own challenges successfully—are becoming less willing to involve themselves in larger regional issues of the same nature. It can seem they are attempting to address the same issues with the same lack of resources and funding on a broader scale.       

On Scene: What resources would you recommend for chiefs who want to learn more?

Essid: The most valuable resource would be their statewide interoperability coordinator. Each state and territory has a statewide coordinator who works with the public safety and government organizations throughout the state; they ensure each statewide plan is a living document serving as a mechanism for strategic planning and for setting benchmarks for progress and enhancements.

I would highly encourage state, local and tribal agencies to identify their statewide coordinator and contact them any time they need assistance or guidance in addressing emergency communications interoperability issues in their jurisdictions. They are a valuable tool and can provide a wealth of information and guidance.

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