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Monday, April 15, 2024

HSToday Q&A: Exploring Emergency Communications Month with CISA Executive Assistant Director Billy Bob Brown, Jr.

Each April prioritizes the people who support the systems on which we rely and highlights the role of emergency communications as a vital function.

Executive Assistant Director for Emergency Communications Billy Bob Brown, Jr., has held this role at the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency since Oct 12, 2020. Brown’s extensive career in emergency communications includes most recently serving as the associate director of the Priority Telecom Services Sub-Division as well as the program manager for both the DHS Level 2 Program Next Generation Networks Priority Services Program and the Level 3 Program Priority Telecommunications Services Program. He was responsible for providing priority telecommunications services over commercial networks to enable national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP) personnel to communicate during congestion scenarios across the nation. Before this assignment, he served as the chief administrative officer in the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) and as director of Operations Integration at the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD). Brown served in the United States Marine Corps as an infantry officer.

Homeland Security Today sat down with Brown to mark Emergency Communications Month, which each April prioritizes the people who support the systems on which we rely and highlights the role of emergency communications as a vital function. Through its emergency communications mission, CISA conducts extensive nationwide outreach to support and promote the ability of emergency response providers and government officials to be able to communicate in the event of a natural disaster, terrorist act, or other hazard.

Q: Last year CISA designated April as the first Emergency Communications Month. What were you able to accomplish during that inaugural month and how do you plan on going beyond that this April? 

A: That is a great question and a great high bar to think about. So last year when CISA declared Emergency Communications Month, it provided for public safety communications officials across the nation the first-time recognition at the federal level – going beyond the second week in April, which is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week – and it highlights the importance of emergency communications in supporting the “safety of the citizen” across the nation. We brought together several public safety communications officials; we highlighted in short video takes the work that they were doing and shared the videos in national level forums, and we received supporting videos posted on social media from leadership at the FCC, NTIA, FEMA’s Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System (IPAWS), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National 911 program office. Finally, the culmination of last year’s Emergency Communications Month was a showcase event by DHS Science and Technology Directorate – a Jamming Exercise or JAMX that evaluated evolving forms of harmful interference or the use of jamming equipment that impacts public safety officials doing their work. During JAMX we also conducted an exercise event for public safety communicators to practice a protocol of recognizing possible jamming or interference and using a technique called PACE – shifting from a Primary to an Alternate to a Contingency or to an Emergency method of moving information to mitigate disruption from jamming interference. The exercise also provided insights about whom they should contact at the FCC Enforcement Bureau. JAMX was a great way of encapsulating our first-ever, inaugural month.

This year, our goal is to similarly engage public safety communications officials across the nation. What we intend as our capstone event is the first-ever assembly of State Alerting Officials all across the nation. This meeting will be a partnership between CISA, FCC and FEMA IPAWS to discuss challenges in alerting protocols, cybersecurity challenges and also reviewing the new CISA cybersecurity performance goals.

Q: What are some communications challenges that first responders can face during a potentially catastrophic and multi-jurisdictional unfolding event such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack? 

A: The catastrophic disaster or terrorist attack amplifies pressure most on the commercial networks – which first responders and emergency managers depend on for technology innovation and economies of scale. Infrastructure damage, disruptions, and traffic congestion all add to pressure to commercial network service providers, including challenges to 911.

The challenges are mitigated best in preparedness activities, through planning and exercising by public safety officials using the technique mentioned earlier called PACE. It is the protocol of shifting from the primary means of sharing information or moving information to alternate or moving to contingency or moving to emergency mechanisms of moving information to support all of those mission-critical activities. Additionally, as a preparedness activity, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency regularly brings together commercial network service providers to discuss operations ongoing. Building these trusted relationships in blue sky days is important.

During disruption, in response activities, this same group of commercial network service providers and also government agencies assemble under the federal operating principle called Emergency Support Function Number 2 (ESF-2) to discuss service disruptions, outages, and priorities for restoration. Oftentimes, during these calls with industry, a requirement for government intervention or assistance is needed to help the commercial network service providers in getting repair personnel inside cordoned-off localities. Critical infrastructure and government must partner together to help expedite the processes of restoration and recovery. These response activities happen in conjunction with the first responders performing good PACE techniques to employ alternate means of sharing information.

Q: How has SAFECOM evolved since its founding after 9/11 to meet current emergency communications challenges? 

A: SAFECOM, when it first started, articulated the challenges first responders experienced very concretely during 9/11, and that’s interoperability. SAFECOM has defined interoperability for all public safety officials. It requires five different lanes: Technology, Governance, Standard Operating Procedures, Exercises-Training, and Usage. Many times I’ve heard decision-makers ask, “What is the interoperability silver bullet? What is the one technology that we could buy to solve interoperability once and for all?” According to SAFECOM, that is the wrong way to think about it.

SAFECOM calls the five lanes the Interoperability Continuum. Only one of the five lanes is technology. Only the technology lane really involves equipment. The other four lanes involve people. The other four lanes require some version of soft skills or improving how people relate with each other. Thus 80 percent of the interoperable communications challenges are people-related challenges.

Since the first publication of the Interoperability Continuum, SAFECOM has evolved the technology lane beyond what was originally noted as the problem in 9/11 – a lack of land-mobile radio interoperable communications between fire and police, even at the command level. Over the past 10 years, first responders have increased their need for data and video to perform their mission-critical activities. SAFECOM has evolved the interoperability continuum to include the use of data and cybersecurity as part of the technology lane to demonstrate the evolution of public safety communication systems to more internet protocol-based technologies.

Q: Tell us about the vulnerability of emergency communications to cyber incidents and how CISA can help the emergency response community be more cyber secure. 

A: That’s a great question. As you’re aware, we have been talking in CISA for the last several weeks or months about the importance of thinking about shifting the burden of cybersecurity away from end users, and we are expressing in partnership with many of our IT-sector partners and communications-sector partners the importance of security by default and security by design where corporate boards are taking more ownership and have a responsibility to design products that are tested well and that are cyber safe. And then by default when they’re shipped to users they have the security settings embedded, not requiring users to try to figure it out on their own.

Public safety, with more and more IP technologies, requires more awareness about cyber vulnerabilities. Technologies that provide data in the form of wearable devices – such as wrist work devices with heart monitoring – provide information to support officer safety and command-and-control: what is the heartbeat of the wearer, the heart rate, which may indicate stress level. Another device could provide awareness of body temperature of the wearer, or another device could provide awareness in three-dimension to confirm if the wearer is upright, vertical or horizontal and not moving. Another device could determine the amount of smoke in the area or composition of that smoke. These kinds of sensors could be worn by a responder, giving a better 360-degree understanding of their environment. This helps responser safety and helps response coordination. All together, including in the law enforcement setting, officer safety could be enhanced and help coordinate first responder activities to rapidly provide essential life-saving services to citizens in distress.

Q: Tell us about Next Generation 911 and the status of this initiative to enhance the ability of people to reach first responders. 

A: Next Generation 911 is delivering an amazing ability to share today in our mobile society not just voice calls for notification of concern but also text messages or images or eventually videos to Public Safety Answering Points. I like to refer to them more as “Analysis” points instead because of the amazing crisis analysis being performed. We certainly saw that during the violent home intruder attack in San Francisco, where the analyst understood what they heard as background activity – and with that insight, they provided more context as to the nature of the incident and alerted law enforcement and the other officials who responded with the right services to ultimately apprehend the suspect in the case of violence going on there.

Having the ability to have more information and insight into what the actual incident is only speeds up the actual response and that’s really kind of the critical thing that Next Generation 911 brings. With the advent of text, images and videos in a 911 report or request for assistance, a more complete understanding of the situation can be gained. And certainly as we see all across the country, in a more resource-constrained environment, knowing sooner what is actually needed helps in assignment of response resources. The ability to understand a complex incident, then applying the right resources to that incident, makes for a safer jurisdiction as a whole.

Q: What is the role of partnerships with industry in the emergency communications ecosystem and how can government best utilize these relationships? 

A: So as I mentioned a little earlier, as I was talking about Emergency Support Function 2, industry truly is our partner. Industry provides much of the communications capabilities whether they’re cellular telephone, whether it’s mobile data in the cellular carrier environment, whether it’s the cable industry providing either fixed wireless or mobile wireless over Wi-Fi moving data and their infrastructure, and all of the information technology companies that are in not only the cybersecurity space but in the application development space. All of those are partners with us in trying to develop emergency communications capabilities that are interoperable, that do have the ability to afford prioritization for emergency response officials in the national security and emergency preparedness community and have the ability to be defined by good, thoughtful communications planning to prepare incident teams to respond when any incident comes up – whether that’s disruptive and destructive weather, day-to-day kinds of incidents, or it’s any kind of an adversarial higher-end incident whether acts of criminality or whatnot that challenge stabilization in a certain area.

Q: What key trends have you seen through your long career in emergency communications? 

A: One of the challenges that I’ve noticed over time is that planning for the next generation is a component of stabilizing security long term, and it’s one of the things that we have been spending quite a bit of time here at CISA in the last two years talking about. How do we think about the next generation and reaching down to ensure that there’s some development not only of cybersecurity talent, not only of emergency communications talent, here at the federal level but all across the nation, all across critical infrastructure, all across state and local communities as well? And there really is a partnership that’s required for all of us to be reaching into not only K-12 but even the university, the postgraduate levels to inspire public service, to inspire others to come into the field supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure, the nation’s cybersecurity, the nation’s emergency communications requirement to support public safety needs. It really is inspiring that next generation to see the value of keeping the nation secure in the long term by participating. That’s one of the challenges, and the changes that I’ve seen includes a more holistic approach across all levels of government and across all of critical infrastructure as we’re all recognizing that it is a long-term security challenge that we have to face together in the way that we message – reaching the next generation to keep America secure and resilient.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you could impart to operators and manufacturers of emergency communications systems? 

A: The one piece of advice that I do like to share with everyone is that we’re all in this together. At the end of the day the Constitution talks about ‘we the people,’ and that’s all of us promoting the common defense, providing for the general welfare. And securing the blessings of liberty for posterity means that we all are in this together – working together to secure the future, providing for resilience and security for all of us as a nation.

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Homeland Security Today
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.
Homeland Security Today
Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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