Making interoperability a reality

The inability of federal, state, local and
tribal governments to speak to each other over wireless networks during
emergencies—the lack of interoperability—has been a major issue
affecting homeland security. The most tragic example of the
consequences of interoperability occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when New
York City firefighters and police were unable to speak to each other in
the Twin Towers, resulting in the deaths of 294 firefighters.

The Safecom program was established in
February 2002 to serve as the federal umbrella program to help state,
local and tribal governments and other federal agencies make their
wireless communications interoperable. Boyd was named director.

Then, on Sept. 27, during a conference on
technology sponsored by the departments of Homeland Security and
Justice, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that on Oct.
1, DHS would launch the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility
(OIC). Ridge also confirmed that Boyd, the man who had already won over
industry and first responders alike with his approach to Safecom, would
run the new effort.

It’s not the first major responsibility that
Boyd has tackled. A veteran of 20 years in the US Army and the winner
of a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Boyd began serving in 1992 as
director of science and technology for the National Institute of
Justice, the Justice Department’s research and evaluation agency and
the largest such activity in the United States. He joined DHS at its
founding in 2003.

In an interview with HSToday on
the first formal day of OIC’s existence, Boyd stressed that Safecom is
not going away. He will continue to manage the program, and Safecom
will continue to carry out its three missions—to develop a national
architecture, to develop standardization and to coordinate federal

“The new office will now pick up things that
don’t fit within the Safecom mission set, so we will also begin to look
at things like demonstrations of new or developing technologies in the
field,” he said. “ We’ll be working with the Science and Technology
Directorate to expand the research and development function.”

He added that OIC will also tackle the new areas of equipment and training where interoperability is an issue.

First Steps

Safecom started fulfilling its interoperable
communications goals by reaching out to first responders and the public
safety community and asking them about their needs. OIC will take the
same approach to interoperable equipment and training.

“The guy at the end of the hose is the guy
whose life depends on our doing this right, so he’s going to have a lot
to say about how we approach this and exactly what it is we are
delivering to him,” Boyd said.

“We are going to have to work with him to
make sure we understand what it is he actually needs on the ground to
do his job, and do it safely, to save the lives of the public and to
make sure that he can protect himself in the process.”

OIC will sit down and figure out how to break
out equipment into rational categories, and then define whether or not
interoperability is an issue for specific pieces of equipment.

“We’re going to be concerned about things
like breathing apparatus, personal protective equipment and other kinds
of devices like that, where it may be critical that the equipment be
able to mesh with the supporting activity that is coming from another
jurisdiction to work with you,” Boyd said.

OIC then will develop statements of
requirements for equipment and training that it can validate against
the communities affected by them. Boyd managed the same process in
Safecom, which published the statement of requirements for
interoperable communications last March. The statement can now be found
on the program’s website at

“That has to be the very first step in every
case, because that then defines what the mission is and what the goals
have to be,” Boyd noted.

At press time, Safecom planned to award a
contract to conduct a baseline study of interoperable communications in
mid-October. That must also be the next step in developing plans for
interoperable equipment and training. In each case, the goal is to
develop a national picture of interoperability in a specific arena,
Boyd said, and in the process develop a tool that localities can use to
measure their specific compatibilities against the rest of the country.

“That means that we have the picture of what
is it that we need, the statement of requirements, and we will have,
when we are finished with it, a picture of where we are now,” Boyd
said. “Now you can do gap analysis.”

Once public safety communities can determine
the differences between where they need to be and where they are, they
can make decisions concerning where to commitfunding and resources, he

Working Together

Safecom established a federal interagency
coordinating council that provided a seat to all federal activities
dealing with communications and interoperability, as well as some major
non-federal programs. The same will be done for equipment and training.

“It’s not our job to decide what technology
is required. It’s not our job to provide the grants. It’s not our job
to try to identify what the right standards, rules, common grain types
are to be used by all of the programs as they are executed by whatever
agency has responsibility for them,” Boyd said. The management of such
tasks falls to the federal interagency coordinating council.

The OIC also works closely with other units
within DHS, such as the Office of the National Incident Management
System (NIMS) and the Office of State and Local Government Coordination
and Preparedness (OSLGCP).

“NIMS is developed by the department in order
to create a national way of managing major incidents,” Boyd pointed
out. “Our job is to make sure that the stuff that NIMS calls on to be
applied will work together so that NIMS can maximize its effectiveness.”

The OSLGCP shop has responsibility for making
grants to help first responders implement interoperable programs.
However, so do others, such as the Community Oriented Policing Services
program in the Department of Justice. OIC provides common guidance for
such programs.

The goal across the federal government and
among federal, state and local first responders is to create an
interoperability continuum, Boyd said.

“It’s not so much about technology—that’s a
critical component in the center of it—but it’s our other factors, like
organization, planning, training and exercise factors and others, that
are crucial to making the technology useful,” he said. HST

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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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