During emergencies, many local, state, and federal responders who need to talk to each other are still operating on different wavelengths, despite billions of dollars in grants and seven years of work from a federal “interoperability” program. Successful interoperability would mean that responders could communicate with “whomever they need to . . . when they need to, and when they are authorized to do so,” according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The problem first gained national prominence during Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, when firefighters and police found they could not communicate their efforts to coordinate rescue activities. Four years later, the problem persisted as demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina, when first responders in Florida, who had emergency resources to lend to hard-hit areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, spent half a day trying to contact officials in those devastated regions.
In 2001, the Department of Homeland Security’s Project SAFECOM was tasked with promoting interoperability across all governmental levels. The program has both technical and cultural challenges to overcome — choosing radio technology that can operate on complementary frequencies, for instance, and teaching police officers that to firefighters “Fire!” means “something is burning,” not “shoot your weapon,” according to the GAO. With an estimated 50,000 different agencies with emergency response officials across the country, comprehensive, coordinated plans are essential to SAFECOM’s task, but in 2007, some state and local emergency responders still did not know the program existed, the GAO found. Those that did often were not using the program’s tools. Another idea for boosting interoperability, recommended by the 9/11 Commission, is to dedicate a larger chunk of the radio spectrum to public safety. The Federal Communications Commission was tasked with finding a private owner in February to operate a nationwide wireless network for first responders, but after setting the price at $1.3 billion, it had no takers.
The Department of Homeland Security produced a National Emergency Communications Plan in July 2008 while state governments have put together similar documents; DHS is not checking, though, if the $3.9 billion in federal grant money given to states corresponds to those plans, according to the GAO. Although the DHS press office did not respond to a request for comment, as of April 2008 the department had approved statewide interoperability plans for all 50 states and six territories, according to the agency’s website.