Homeland Security:

Federal Leadership and Intergovernmental Cooperation Required to Achieve First Responder Interoperable Communications

GAO-04-740: Published: Jul 20, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2004.

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Lives of first responders and those whom they are trying to assist can be lost when first responders cannot communicate effectively as needed. This report addresses issues of determining the status of interoperable wireless communications across the nation, and the potential roles that federal, state, and local governments can play in improving these communications.

In a November 6, 2003, testimony, GAO said that no one group or level of government could "fix" the nation's interoperable communications problems. Success would require effective, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and intergovernmental planning. The present extent and scope nationwide of public safety wireless communication systems' ability to talk among themselves as necessary and authorized has not been determined. Data on current conditions compared to needs are necessary to develop plans for improvement and measure progress over time. However, the nationwide data needed to do this are not currently available. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intends to obtain this information by the year 2005 by means of a nationwide survey. However, at the time of our review, DHS had not yet developed its detailed plans for conducting this survey and reporting its results. The federal government can take a leadership role in support of efforts to improve interoperability by developing national requirements and a national architecture, developing nationwide databases, and providing technical and financial support for state and local efforts to improve interoperability. In 2001, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) established the federal government's Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications Program, SAFECOM, to unify efforts to achieve national wireless communications interoperability. However, SAFECOM's authority and ability to oversee and coordinate federal and state efforts has been limited by its dependence upon other agencies for funding and their willingness to cooperate. OMB is currently examining alternative methods to implement SAFECOM's mission. In addition, DHS, where SAFECOM now resides, has recently announced it is establishing an Office for Interoperability and Compatibility to coordinate the federal response to the problems of interoperability in several functions, including wireless communications. The exact structure and funding for this office, which will include SAFECOM, are still being developed. State and local governments can play a large role in developing and implementing plans to improve public safety agencies' interoperable communications. State and local governments own most of the physical infrastructure of public safety communications systems, and states play a central role in managing emergency communications. The Federal Communications Commission recognized the central role of states in concluding that states should manage the public safety interoperability channels in the 700 MHz communications spectrum. States, with broad input from local governments, are a logical choice to serve as a foundation for interoperability planning because incidents of any level of severity originate at the local level with states as the primary source of support. However, states are not required to develop interoperability plans, and there is no clear guidance on what should be included in such plans.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve interoperable wireless communications for first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, at the appropriate time, require through DHS grant guidance that federal grant funding for communications equipment shall be approved only upon certification by the statewide body responsible for interoperable communications that such grant applications are in conformance with statewide interoperability plans. DHS should give states adequate time to develop these focal points and plans and to provide guidance on development of such plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS's PSIC grant program of 2007 was developed to leverage the requirement for states to develop, adopt, and submit Statewide Plans. These plans must address locally-driven interoperable communications capabilities among local and tribal government entities, and authorized nongovernmental organizations. The development and adoption of a Statewide Plan is also required by Section I.C.5 of the 2006 HSGP Guidance and Application Kit. Beginning in February 2008, DHS's Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)--part of the Department of Commerce--oversaw a peer review process to evaluate, approve, and provide feedback to states and territories on their SCIPs and Investment Justifications. This overall effort is in varying stages of completion. For example, in April 2008, OEC completed the review and approval process of all SCIPs submitted by the 56 U.S. states and territories. NTIA completed the approval of the accompanying Investment Justifications in June 2008. OEC has leveraged the findings and recommendations to formulate the National Emergency Communications Plan (although OEC does not plan to release the findings from the peer review process). Additionally, OEC developed a National Communications Capabilities Report--an assessment of existing emergency communications capabilities across all levels of government. This review process will allow the Department to gain a better understanding of the state of interoperability across the nation, and in turn, will help determine the level and type of support DHS will need to deliver to the states and territories as they work towards enhancing interoperable communications capabilities, according to DHS officials. While DHS continues to encourage and assist states in the development of their SCIPs, FEMA grant programs currently require investment justifications to demonstrate that their proposed projects align with the vision, goals, and objectives of the state's homeland security strategies.

    Recommendation: To improve interoperable wireless communications for first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should through DHS grant guidance encourage states to establish a single statewide body responsible for interoperable communications and that this body shall prepare a single comprehensive statewide interoperability plan for federal, state, and local communication systems in all frequency bands. The statewide interoperability plan shall be based upon the nationwide standard frequency database and use the standard nationwide nomenclature for interoperability channels, once they are developed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS's Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) Grant Program leverages the requirement for states to provide a summary description of the current state of their governance structure and activities, including (a) number of public safety agencies which entered into formal interoperability agreements (e.g., MOU); (b) existence of a formal/informal interoperability group (e.g., working group) that discusses interoperability issues across the state and/or region; (c) number of agencies that share formal standard operating procedures (SOPs) for day-to-day, task force, and mutual aid communications interoperability; (d) number of agencies and types of disciplines and levels of government that are engaged in joint training events. Also, under DHS's fiscal year 2007 Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP), DHS identified allowable grant program costs to include the development and adoption of statewide interoperable communications plans.

    Recommendation: To improve interoperable wireless communications for first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with state and local governments, determine the current status of wireless public safety interoperable telecommunications across the nation by assessing interoperability in specific locations against interoperability requirements that can be measured, and assist states in assessing interoperability in their states against those requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS conducts ongoing assessments of existing emergency communications capabilities across all levels of government in order to comply with the Post-Katrina Act. These DHS assessments were delivered in a two-part National Communications Capabilities Report issued in April and July of 2008. The April 2008 report outlines preliminary insights about the current inventory of emergency communications capabilities, as well as the range of capabilities needed by emergency response providers and relevant government officials to communicate in the event of natural disasters or acts of terrorism. The July 2008 report draws on findings from other activities such as the development and review of the Statewide Communications Interoperability Plans (SCIPs) and is designed to be used to form the foundation for the National Emergency Communications Plan. DHS anticipates that the report will assist officials at all levels of government in making informed decisions about interoperable emergency communications, establishing priorities, and allocating resources more effectively. DHS's Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) developed in July 2008 a National Emergency Communications Plan in consultation with other federal and states. According to OEC, the plan builds on key efforts such as the review of the SCIPs and Investment Justifications that are part of states' and urban areas' grant proposals, and the assessment of existing and needed capabilities to define national goals and objectives. The plan includes recommendations to address existing capability gaps and provide a roadmap for achieving operable and interoperable emergency communications. DHS's goal is that the plan will clearly define the roles and responsibilities of all federal, state, local, and tribal entities that play a role in emergency communications and will likely provide a more accurate and complete picture of the resources that OEC will need to execute its responsibilities under the national plan.

    Recommendation: To improve interoperable wireless communications for first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in coordination with the FCC and the NTIA, continue development of a nationwide database of all interoperable public safety communications frequencies, establish a common nomenclature for those frequencies, and establish clear timeframes to complete both efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS continued develop a nationwide database of interoperable public safety communication frequencies. In June 2007, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) published the NCC / NPSTC Standard Channel Nomenclature for Public Safety Interoperability Channels. The NPSTC is supported through funding by DHS's Office of Interoperability & Compatibility. The requirement for a common naming protocol for public safety's interoperability frequencies was identified in early 2000 by the Public Safety National Coordination Committee (NCC), a Federal Advisory Committee chartered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that operated from 1999 to 2003, and provided recommendations to the Commission on operational and technical parameters for use of the 700 MHz public safety band. With regard to costs, NPSTC, with unanimous support from the SAFECOM Executive Committee, has recommended to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM Program that its Federal Interoperability Grant Guidance be modified to specifically provide that, for interoperability-related grants, the cost of reprogramming communications infrastructure and subscriber equipment, and the cost of generating or revising first responder training curriculum and materials to implement the Standard Channel Nomenclature for the Public Safety Interoperability Channels be specifically designated as allowable grant expenses to facilitate interoperability.

    Recommendation: The Director, OMB, in conjunction with DHS, should review the interoperability mission and functions now performed by SAFECOM and establish these functions as a long term program with adequate coordination authority and funding.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS has established the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) in response to the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. OEC supports the Secretary of Homeland Security in developing, implementing, and coordinating interoperable and operable communications for the emergency response community at all levels of government, and is housed within DHS's Office of Cyber Security and Communications. OEC was established to oversee the transition of three programs from other DHS entities into OEC: the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN), the Interoperable Communications Technical Assistance Program (ICTAP), and the SAFECOM program. The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2007 established SAFECOM as a long-term program, as it transferred SAFECOM?s policy and planning functions to the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) within the National Protection and Programs Directorate. OEC has engaged with the nation's emergency response community at the local, tribal, state and federal levels on numerous initiatives designed to ensure, accelerate, and attain interoperable emergency communications nationwide.

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