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Strategic Planning for Nationwide Interoperable Emergency Communications

This year, the United States will mark the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The events of that day revealed how the lack of coordination and interoperable communication systems can impede the critical work of emergency responders that save lives in every city and town across the nation.

While the attacks were a dramatic event for our nation, they highlighted public-safety concerns about the vital need for improved emergency communications and were an important catalyst for change.

One of the key interoperability initiatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) is the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP). The NECP serves as the nation's first strategic roadmap for interoperability and is a guide for emergency responders and government officials to make measurable improvements in emergency communications.

Created with the input of over 150 stakeholders representing federal, state, local and tribal first responders, the NECP focuses on coordination, governance, planning, usage, training and exercises, and technology—all elements the public-safety community has deemed vitally important to achieving interoperability.

Progress at the State and Local Level

The NECP has proven to be an effective strategy for building, sustaining and improving emergency communications across the country. The emergency-response community is seeing the benefits of the NECP through more targeted policies, grant funding and technical assistance.

Since the release of the NECP, the nation has achieved over 80% of the 73 milestones recommended for federal, state and local agencies and their partners. Over 75% of all 56 states and territories now have full-time interoperability coordinators. Ensuring a single source of accountability, responsibility and coordination to realize efficiencies, establish partnerships and reduce duplication of efforts will achieve strengthened emergency communications capability within states.

To further coordinate and to provide a forum for discussion and innovation, OEC developed a council for all statewide coordinators to interact and learn from one another. Although the needs of states vary greatly, accessing model policies and lessons learned through the council makes an impact on improving governance within the states.

In addition to statewide interoperability coordinators, all states have statewide interoperability governing bodies that consist of a mix of state, local and tribal public-safety representatives, elected officials and other associations that support the work of the interoperability coordinator.

A critical part of progress at the state and local level is the implementation of a statewide communication interoperability plan (SCIP) in every state. An SCIP provides a roadmap for the individual state to follow. The states add initiatives to the plan based on their needs and use the resources of the statewide interoperability coordinator and governing body to implement the plan.

With state and national strategies in place, combined with the framework of state governance structures, the public-safety community is moving forward to strengthen interoperable communications.

Measuring Progress

In addition to the milestones and benchmarks in the NECP, the plan also contains performance-based goals for measuring interoperable emergency communications:

  • Goal 1: By the end of 2010, 90% of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.
  • Goal 2: By the end of 2011, 75% of non-UASI jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.
  • Goal 3: By the end of 2013, 75% of all jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours for a significant event as outlined in national planning scenarios.

Evaluating the jurisdictions’ ability to meet these goals has been a key focus area of OEC’s efforts since the NECP’s release. Goal 1 focused on emergency communications in urban areas and was an important step in ongoing efforts to assess progress and improve interoperable emergency communications across the nation. To measure goal 1, the OEC worked with the nation’s UASI regions to assess their ability to demonstrate response-level emergency communications during planned events that included large public gatherings and required participation from multiple public-safety agencies and jurisdictions.

As part of the goal 1 process, the OEC worked closely with representatives from the state and local community to establish performance measurement criteria that can provide ongoing benefits to jurisdictions beyond just demonstrating the goal. The OEC used the same criteria to assess goal 2 and encourages all jurisdictions to focus on the elements of response-level emergency communications in their future planning, operating procedures, training and exercises.

All 60 urban areas were able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications and achieve interoperability among multiple agencies and jurisdictions during routine events, achieving goal 1. The results of these assessments will provide public safety with the concrete facts needed to justify continued support of emergency communications and will identify gaps to build a sound strategy for achieving and sustaining interoperability.

The completion of these assessments represents an important step toward achieving national interoperability and identifying the work that still needs to be done.

This year, the OEC is supporting public-safety agencies to report on emergency-communications capabilities and demonstrate their abilities to achieve response-level communications to meet goal 2. Every county in the nation will report their capabilities. While this is a big challenge, the results are essential for measuring progress and continuing to move forward to improve interoperable communications.

Moving Forward

While the OEC continues to work with stakeholders to fully implement the first iteration of the NECP, the plan is a living document, meant to be regularly updated as technologies evolve and the public-safety communications industry advances.

As a result of emerging technologies and input from the emergency-response community, the OEC is updating the NECP. This update will be accomplished by working with our stakeholders to identify new topics to include in the updated plan as well as lessons learned from the first iteration. As before, the OEC will leverage common initiatives and gaps from the 56 SCIPs to ensure alignment with the NECP.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve made significant progress toward improving emergency communications. Those who worked to improve communications capabilities before the attacks will continue to serve as leaders as we collaborate to develop a strategic plan and define a path forward. As we continue through 2011, there will be many discussions about the progress we’ve made, but we still have substantial work ahead of us. Together, we must continue to develop solutions that fit the needs of today’s practitioners.

Chris Essid is the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications.

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