US sets national emergency responder communications plan

Looking to help eliminate the dangerous and inefficient hodgepodge of communication and network technology used by emergency response personnel, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today released its first National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP).

The wide-ranging and complicated 83-page NECP is intended to bring together myriad local, state and federal organizations, as well as to standardize network technology that, melded together will fill in gaps in the way first responders manage resources and communicate during an emergency.

DHS cited the communications failures of the 9.11 attacks, the Air Florida crash in Washington, DC in 1982 and Hurricane Katrina as examples of disasters that in part could have been better handled by more standardized communications technology.

The NECP sets three goals that establish a minimum level of interoperable communications and a deadline for federal, state, local and tribal authorities:

  • By 2010, 90% of all areas designated as high-risk of international terrorist attack - defined by DHS' Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) -- demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies. For example, Los Angeles/Long Beach Jersey City/Newark, Bay, New York City, National Capital Region, Houston and Chicago are all what DHS calls tier 1 UASI high risk areas.
  • By 2011, 75% of non-high risk jurisdictions demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.
  • By 2013, 75% of all jurisdictions can demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours of a significant event, as outlined in the department's national planning scenarios.

Some of the technical issues and goals of NECP include:

  • The upcoming FCC narrowband deadline calls for non-Federal emergency response agencies operating in frequencies below 512 MHz to transition from 25 kilohertz (kHz) to 12.5 kHz channels by 2013 to ensure spectrum efficiency. Federal grants can aid the migration and transition from legacy to approved open architecture and next-generation systems.
  • In cooperation with the emergency response community, the private sector, and the feds, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, the National Association of State Technology Directors, and the Telecommunications Industry Association are developing a set of communications standards-the Project 25 (P25) suite of standards-for digital Land Mobile Radio. In that area, the standards for two of the eight P25 interfaces have been developed.
  • Standards development for data exchange exists, to improve information-sharing capabilities among disparate emergency response software applications (e.g., Emergency Data Exchange Language [EDXL] standards including the Common Alerting Protocol, Distribution Element [DE], Hospital Availability Exchange [HAVE], Resource Messaging [RM], and the National Information Exchange Model [NIEM]).
  • Implement the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) for Federal responders. A standard nationwide encryption method will diminish the interoperability challenges faced by Federal responders (who previously used different methods) and will provide guidance to local and State agencies when working with Federal agencies, DHS said.

Since it is a government operation, the NECP takes 83 pages of text to define what it does, how it will go about achieving its goals and the difficult issues it is trying to address.

For example, the plan states within 12 months, DHS will develop a standardized framework for identifying and assessing emergency communications capabilities nationwide. That emergency communications framework will then be reviewed during a series of technical working group meetings with stakeholders from the emergency response community. Within 24 months, the emergency communications capability framework will be incorporated as the communications and information management capability in the DHS/FEMA National Preparedness Guidelines, which will serve as a basis for who gets what money for projects.

That sounds good but even the DHS plan notes that no single technological option can address all emergency communications challenges or meet the needs of all agencies. The proprietary nature of many communications technologies creates an ongoing challenge to system connectivity and establishing interoperability among them, DHS said. There have been some early successes at achieving some level of interoperability. DHS said several States such as Arizona, California, and Texas are developing statewide "systems of systems" that use emerging technologies to establish interoperability among different levels of government and that span frequency bands.

The plan does say that the presence of wireless data networks, Internet Protocol-based mobile communications devices, and location-based commercial services are creating potential opportunities to enhance command and control and situational awareness. Accelerating the development of standards for existing and emerging technologies can address these technology challenges, and improve communications during response operations for both routine and significant events, DHS said.

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