Every day in the United States, people make 657,500 emergency calls to 911, law enforcement makes 33,400 arrests, fire departments fight over 1,000 fires and EMS transports more than 60,000 patients. When emergency responders are on the frontlines, working to save lives and property, nothing is more important than effective, reliable and interoperable communications.
Ensuring robust communications requires close coordination with stakeholders across public-safety disciplines, effective training, governance, funding mechanisms and strong leadership. The DHS Office of Emergency Communications (OEC), in partnership with SAFECOM, plays a critical role in coordinating with the public-safety community to improve interoperability.
OEC and SAFECOM maintain close working relationships with many leaders and stakeholders in the fire-safety community. These partnerships enable us to uniquely understand how and why reliable communications are critical for ensuring public safety.
Challenges can be numerous, ranging from technical and financial obstacles to policy and governance limitations. For example, without a statewide governance structure, coordinating a unified approach across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions can be extremely difficult.
To address these challenges, OEC and the National Governors Association are partnering to host the Policy Academy on Enhancing Emergency Communications Interoperability. Through the Policy Academy, OEC will be better positioned to help states address challenges to interoperability.
Five states have been selected to participate in the Policy Academy: Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Utah and West Virginia. It kicks off in May, with workshops to be held from June to August. The results will be compiled into a set of best practices and tools to address gaps in emergency communications networks and capabilities nationwide.
OEC is excited about the results of the Academy because the last academy that focused on interoperability, which took place in 2006, resulted in the formation of OEC and the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP) and highlighted the need for statewide interoperability coordinators, statewide interoperability plans and statewide interoperability governance bodies. It also laid the groundwork for Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program funding.
SAFECOM and OEC conduct critically important work on a wide variety of fronts. Despite the proliferation of new communications tools—commercial broadband networks, mobile applications, Next Generation 911, upgraded alerts and warnings, and social media—we understand that land mobile radio (LMR) continues to be the most prevalent method for emergency communications throughout much of the United States.
Accordingly, OEC provides technical assistance to help first responders better utilize interoperable public-safety communications of all kinds, whether LMR, data communications or other voice- and data-network capabilities. Annually, OEC provides about 150 workshops nationwide to help fire, police and other agencies fulfill their missions.
On February 19, OEC, in partnership with SAFECOM, released the Fiscal Year 2016 SAFECOM Guidance on Emergency Communications Grants (SAFECOM Guidance). The SAFECOM Guidance is updated annually to provide current information on emergency communications policies, eligible costs, best practices and technical standards for state, local, tribal and territorial grantees investing federal funds in emergency communications projects.
This year’s funding priorities remain consistent with previous SAFECOM Guidance releases, balancing the need to invest in activities to prepare for new emergency communications technologies with the continued need to sustain current LMR capabilities.
Another priority for 2016 is a new OEC initiative to assess response-level communications in major urban areas. This initiative will be similar to OEC’s 2010 assessment of the Urban Area Security Initiative grant recipients for NECP Goal 1, but this time we’ll look at the full range of emergency communications technology, not just LMR. The results will inform the development of a planning and observation toolkit, which will be widely available to organizations with emergency communications planning and response capabilities.
As we continue planning for this effort, we’ll need feedback from SAFECOM and the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators to ensure its success.
As you can see, the first quarter of 2016 has been a very productive one, and this trend of forward progress looks to continue throughout the rest of the year. As the world of interoperability continues to change, we’ll change along with it in order to keep America safe and secure. OEC’s goal is to always be public safety’s trusted partner.