(Marvin Nauman/FEMA)

GAO: Steps Needed to Improve External Emergency Communications

Public-safety communications systems are used by thousands of federal, state, and local jurisdictions. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) offers written guidance, governance planning, and technical assistance to help ensure public-safety entities have the necessary plans, resources, and training to support emergency communications. The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent authority within the Department of Commerce, is establishing a public-safety network.

OEC develops policy and guidance supporting emergency communications across all levels of government and across various types of emerging technologies such as broadband, Wi-Fi, and NextGen 911, among others. OEC also provides technical assistance—including training, tools, and online and on-site assistance—for federal, state, local, and tribal first responders.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review OEC’s efforts related to interoperable emergency communications. Its December 12 report examines OEC’s and FEMA’s collaborative efforts to develop grant guidance; how OEC incorporates FirstNet’s network and other emerging technologies into its plans and offerings; and the extent to which OEC has assessed its methods of communication. GAO evaluated OEC’s and FEMA’s coordination against GAO’s leading practices for interagency collaboration; surveyed all 54 state-designated statewide interoperability coordinators (SWICs); evaluated OEC’s communications efforts against federal internal control standards; and interviewed officials that represented various areas of public safety.

OEC and FEMA collaborate on grant guidance to help public-safety stakeholders use federal funds for interoperable emergency communications. GAO found that OEC’s and FEMA’s efforts generally align with GAO’s leading practices for effective interagency collaboration. For example, OEC’s and FEMA’s memorandum of agreement and standard operating procedures articulate their agreement in formal documents, define their respective responsibilities, and include relevant participants. During this review, the agencies established a process to monitor and assess grantees’ compliance with the grant guidance. However, because the grants for 2018 were not yet awarded at the time of GAO’s review, GAO was unable to assess the effectiveness of the new process.

OEC incorporates the FirstNet nationwide public-safety broadband network and other emerging technologies into various offerings such as written guidance, governance planning, and technical assistance. Public-safety organizations GAO interviewed and statewide interoperability coordinators GAO surveyed were generally satisfied with OEC’s communication efforts.

However, OEC has not assessed its methods for communicating with external stakeholders. According to federal internal control standards, management should externally communicate the necessary quality information to achieve the entity’s objectives and periodically assess its methods of communication so that the organization has the appropriate tools to communicate quality information on a timely basis.

Most public-safety organizations GAO interviewed said that OEC communicates with their organization frequently through committee meetings and other means. For example, 9 of the 10 organizations told GAO that a key form of communication between their organization and OEC is participation in emergency-communications advisory groups such as SAFECOM, the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators (NCSWIC), and the Public Safety Advisory Committee. Furthermore, OEC officials reported that OEC’s guidance documents, plans, tools, and technical assistance offerings are formally provided to the public-safety community through the SAFECOM, NCSWIC, and Emergency Communications Preparedness Center distribution lists. Governing body representatives then distribute the information to their organizations and stakeholders. These documents are also available on DHS’s website. In addition, 4 of the 10 organizations told GAO that they regularly have direct communications with OEC staff. The large majority of SWICs responded that they are very or moderately satisfied with the communication efforts from both OEC headquarters (81 percent) and OEC coordinators (93 percent).

However, some stakeholders identified communication challenges as well as opportunities for OEC to improve communication. For example, approximately one quarter (26 percent) of SWICs said that OEC does not communicate training well, and these SWICs reported that they are either unaware of OEC training opportunities related to FirstNet’s network and other emerging technologies, or that they mostly learn about OEC training opportunities from other sources.

Some SWIC survey respondents and public-safety representatives identified an opportunity for OEC to improve its methods of communication. Additional tools or approaches, such as social media, could improve communication between OEC and its stakeholders. Because OEC has not assessed its methods of communication, it may not be using the best tools and approaches to provide timely information on training opportunities, workshops, and other emergency communications information to the public-safety community.

GAO calls for OEC to assess its methods of communication to help ensure it is using the appropriate tools in communicating with external stakeholders. DHS concurs with the recommendation.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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