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The Barriers to Interoperability

A lack of manufacturer standards for ensuring that products can talk to each other is just one barrier to the illusive goal of interoperable communications.

More than five years after 9-11, and over a decade since emergency managers ran notes to one another at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, interoperability of communications among first responders is still not a reality—and even a minimum level of interoperability is not expected until 2008—even though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has meted out $2.15 billion in grant money to states for that express purpose since 2003.

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) tries to find out why by, among other things, looking at how four states and eleven localities have spent the grant money.

The GAO found that one major barrier to success has been the lack of interoperability standards to which equipment manufacturers can build devices.

The quest for technical standards dates back to 1989, when industry, along with government agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, launched an initiative called Project 25 (P25)—with the goal of enabling interoperability among products regardless of the manufacturer.

To achieve P25’s goal, the project participants had to write technical specifications. However, says GAO, not only have many categories not been addressed but “ambiguities in the published standards have led to incompatibilities among products made by different vendors, and no compliance testing has been conducted to ensure [that] vendors’ products are interoperable.”

That means two radios sold as P25 compliant might not work with one another, says report lead author Linda Koontz, director of information management issues at GAO.

Despite this problem, states have put grant money toward P25-compliant radios, because DHS grant guidance requires that they do so; those radios sell at a premium price of roughly $4,500 to $5,000—compared to $1,000 to $2,500 for a noncompliant model.

“As a result,” concludes GAO, “states and local agencies have purchased fewer, more expensive radios, which still may not be interoperable.”

While GAO urged industry to proceed with development of equipment standards, it argued that, in their absence, DHS should give states and localities greater flexibility to buy what works for them now. DHS, however, disagreed with the recommendation.

GAO also took issue with states that spent grant money locally with no statewide plan for interoperability; it cited Kentucky as an example.

Another concern was SAFECOM, a DHS program that was supposed to give states interoperability guidance. GAO found that it wasn’t much help, and states said that SAFECOM’s tools were too abstract to aid them on a practical level with interoperability implementation.

GAO also found that SAFECOM has not addressed a number of roadblocks to interoperability, such as that the FBI encrypts communications and that DHS and the Justice and Treasury Departments are developing a consolidated federal wireless communication service for federal public safety and law enforcement personnel (called the Integrated Wireless Network) without assessing whether state and local first responders will be able to use it.

Another criticism was that while SAFECOM focuses primarily on establishment of interoperability within states, Hurricane Katrina, GAO noted, illustrated the need for added focus on communication among local, state, and federal agencies.

Individual state interoperability plans, mandated by DHS, are due by the end of 2007, while a national interoperability plan, due by April of 2008, is required under a law reforming the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that was passed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. DHS must first complete an interoperability assessment by October.

In a response incorporated in the report, DHS agreed with some of GAO’s recommendations on achieving interoperability, including one recommendation that the agency implement performance metrics for grant recipients.

It remains to be seen how DHS’s national plan will incorporate or accommodate state plans, which are due shortly before the national strategy.

Based on the methods used in Virginia, where state officials queried locals before drafting a plan, advocacy groups like the First Response Coalition and experts are urging a “bottom-up” approach.

“Federal officials have always had a history of ineffectiveness when they don’t do their homework, and in this case that means talking to states and locals and saying, ‘What do you want?’” says Tom Tolman, a former National Institute of Justice researcher and P25 steering committee member.