First Responders:

Much Work Remains to Improve Communications Interoperability

GAO-07-301: Published: Apr 2, 2007. Publicly Released: Apr 2, 2007.

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As the first to respond to natural disasters, domestic terrorism, and other emergencies, public safety agencies rely on timely communications across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions. It is vital to the safety and effectiveness of first responders that their electronic communications systems enable them to communicate with whomever they need to, when they need to, and when they are authorized to do so. GAO was asked to determine, among other things, (1) the extent to which Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding and technical assistance has helped to improve interoperable communications in selected states and (2) the progress that has been made in the development and implementation of interoperable communications standards. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed grant information, documentation of selected states' and localities' interoperability projects, and standards documents.

According to DHS, $2.15 billion in grant funding was awarded to states and localities from 2003 through 2005 for communications interoperability enhancements. This funding, along with technical assistance, has helped to make improvements on a variety of specific interoperability projects. However, states that GAO reviewed had generally not used strategic plans to guide investments toward broadly improving interoperability. Further, no national plan was in place to coordinate investments across states. To its credit, DHS has required states to implement a statewide plan by the end of 2007, and DHS has recently been required to implement a National Emergency Communications Plan. However, no process has been established for ensuring that states' grant requests are consistent with their statewide plans. Until DHS takes a more strategic approach to improving interoperable communications--such as including in its decision making an assessment of how grant requests align with statewide communications plans--progress by states and localities in improving interoperability is likely to be impeded. Until recently, the private-sector coordinating body responsible for developing Project 25 standards--a suite of national standards intended to enable interoperability among the communications products of different vendors--has made little progress. Although one of the eight major subsets of standards was defined in the project's first 4 years (from 1989 to 1993), from 1993 through 2005, no additional standards were completed that could be used to develop Project 25 products. Specifications for three additional subsets of standards were defined over the past 2 years. However, ambiguities in the published standards have led to incompatibilities among products made by different vendors, and no compliance testing has been conducted to determine if these products are interoperable. Nevertheless, DHS has strongly encouraged state and local agencies to use grant funding to purchase Project 25 radios, which are substantially more expensive than non-Project 25 radios. As a result, states and local agencies have purchased fewer, more expensive radios that still may not be interoperable and thus may provide few added benefits. Until DHS modifies its grant guidance to provide more flexibility in purchasing communications equipment, states and localities are likely to continue to purchase expensive equipment that provides them with minimal additional benefits.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with GAO's recommendation, and subsequently, in July 2008, DHS's Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) completed a strategic communications plan, referred to as the National Emergency Communications Plan. The Plan's three goals establish interoperability performance measures for the Nation's emergency response agencies. For example, the plan states that by 2010, 90 percent of all Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) regions are to be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies, and that by 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours, in the event of a significant incident. In 2011, OEC reported on the progress in meeting the 2010 goal. Additionally, the communication plan contains quantifiable and time-bound milestones for achieving key portions of the plan. OEC officials have also developed evaluation surveys to formally asses the effectiveness and usefulness of their tools, assistance, and outreach. As a result, OEC is taking key steps to obtain the necessary feedback needed to determine the effectiveness of its services and approach.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that progress is made in improving interoperable communications among federal, state, and local first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should include in the program plan for SAFECOM and other OEC interoperability programs quantifiable performance measures that can be used to determine the extent to which each of the goals have been accomplished and that can be used to assess the effectiveness and usefulness of SAFECOM tools, assistance, and outreach, and make improvements based on the feedback.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with GAO's recommendation, and subsequently, in February 2009, DHS's Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) released its first strategic plan that outlines the office's visions, missions, and goals, and focuses on improving interoperable radio communications at all levels of government. For example, the plan states that two of OEC's goals are to (1) improve emergency communications capability through targeted interactions with federal, state, local, and tribal agencies, and (2) develop policies and plans that guide, promote, and enhance efforts to improve emergency communications nationwide. Additionally, OEC has taken several steps to implement this plan. For example, it developed a national council of statewide interoperability coordinators. Moreover, the OEC developed a catalog of various technical assistance offerings that DHS provides to state and local governments to heighten their awareness of the support they are eligible to request to improve their interoperable communications. As a result, DHS's efforts to improve communications interoperability will likely be much more strategic and have a greater impact across all levels of government.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that progress is made in improving interoperable communications among federal, state, and local first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop and implement a program plan for SAFECOM and other Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) interoperability programs that includes goals focused on improving interoperability among all levels of government.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with GAO's recommendation, and subsequently in 2008, DHS's National Emergency Communication Plan outlined a goal that by 2010, 90 percent of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Areas Security Initiative(UASI) be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies. In order for DHS to assess whether this goal had been met, in 2010 OEC evaluated large-scale planned events at each UASI region that required public safety support from multiple agencies, disciplines, and jurisdictions. Based on the capabilities documented and observed by DHS officials, all 60 UASI regions demonstrated response-level emergency communications within one hour involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that progress is made in improving interoperable communications among federal, state, and local first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should plan for new full-scale exercises for Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) areas that provides local officials with sufficient time to develop and implement exercises to validate the robustness and effectiveness of their tactical interoperable communications plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with GAO's recommendation, and subsequently in 2009, DHS's Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program required that states' grant applications demonstrate how proposed projects align to needs, goals, objectives, and/or initiatives identified in the Statewide Communication Interoperability Plan (SCIP). Officials indicated that this requirement is a primary element in the review criteria used by DHS to fund proposed projects. In addition, grantees are required to submit a SCIP Implementation Report that identifies their progress in achieving goals, objectives, and initiatives identified in their respective plans.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that progress is made in improving interoperable communications among federal, state, and local first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should assess how states' grant requests support their statewide communications plans and include the assessment as a factor in making DHS grant allocation decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Officials have not implemented this recommendation. DHS's grant guidance strongly encouraged state and local agencies to purchase Project 25 radios in fiscal years 2008 through 2011.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that progress is made in improving interoperable communications among federal, state, and local first responders, the Secretary of Homeland Security should modify grant guidance to provide more flexibility in purchasing communications equipment until standards for completed interfaces have been fully defined and products have been certified compliant.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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