DHS outlines emergency communications plan

Las Vegas, March 11, 2011 -- Almost 3 million people in the U.S. can be considered first responders. That was the estimate from DHS Director of the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) Chris Essid at the IWCE 2011 tradeshow in Las Vegas this week. Essid's point was that if these responders aren't able to share information, we are putting our nation's safety is at risk.

Essid presented a Wednesday afternoon keynote presentation to the attendees of this wireless technology show – a show that featured technology offerings ranging from wireless radios for police, fire and security to the latest trends in microwave, cellular LTE, 700Mhz spectrum and narrow-banding. His presentation focused on the national emergency communications plan and the cooperative efforts of the OEC to encourage cross-jurisdictional communications.

The impetus behind Essid's efforts dates back almost 10 years to the terror incidents of Sept. 11, 2001. In follow-up studies of 9/11, one of the critical weaknesses was found to be a lack of communication among first responders, and it is thought that improved communications could have saved lives of not only the first responders, but possibly even victims in the towers.

"The ability to communicate during a disaster is crucial to any response," Essid said. "If you can't ask for help, every bit of the response will break down."

Essid clearly is tasked with a gargantuan effort. On the table in front of him, he said, is an estimated 70,000 police departments, 15,000 fire departments and 17,000 EMS/EMT organizations. Creating a communications technology plan so that these organizations can share information is critical to the role of the OEC, said Essid. The organization's role is not to be the enforcer or cajoler. Rather, he said, the OEC acts to link partners so that cities, counties, police, fire, EMS organizations can share channels, share resources and share expertise.

To do that, he is focused on creating the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP); it is essentially a step-by-step plan to ensure that mission critical information can be shared among first responders. To date, he said, the OEC has hit 85 percent of the milestones for this plan.

However, Essid said that the world should not expect overnight changes within emergency communications. Not only is a technology change expensive, but "the public safety community isn't going to take chances with lives." He said, for example, that public safety isn't about to leave the comfortable and consistent world of land mobile radio (LMR) networks for the cutting-edge technology of wireless broadband "until it has been tested and proven in the field, and proven for first responders," not simply proven for consumer usage.

That said, part of the plan focuses on the evolution of networks for not just mission critical voice (e.g., police and fire radios), but mission critical data sharing as well.

How far has public safety come since 9/11 in terms of public safety communications interoperability? There is no easy answer to that question, said Essid.

"There is no magical finish line to interoperability," he said. Instead, he said that interoperability is a process that has to be continually encouraged, because there is always a danger that departments will revert back to standalone, proprietary technology and system designs that could once again silo their communications.

Another challenge he said that OEC faces is one of training. He said he has seen a recurring problem where a department will invest in innovative and effective technologies for emergency communications. Unfortunately, many of these same departments do not practice with this equipment regularly, and when the emergency occurs six months or a year down the line, no one remembers how to use the technology they have at their disposal.

"My little office of 50 or 60 employees can't solve all of these challenges by itself," Essid said. "Instead, it has to be a wellspring of change that happens in every state, county and city."

More information about the OEC, including the National Emergency Communicaitons Plan, is available from the DHS website OEC page.