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Since the attacks of September 11, an unprecedented amount of federal money has been spent on communications gear and technology for first responders. (savethedave/flickr)
Department of Homeland Security officials have said that more grant money has gone to interoperability than to any other initiative, and it continues to be a major focus for DHS grant programs, while also drawing funding from the economic stimulus package.
(Franklin Park Library/flickr)

When a cop or a fire fighter pulls out a radio in a television police drama, his message goes through, whether he’s in the basement of a building or deep in a forest. In the real world, clear communication is rarely so easy, particularly among first responders from different disciplines and jurisdictions. This reality was dramatically brought home at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when crucial observations from the police department’s helicopters did not reach fire chiefs, commanders lost radio contact with responders who ascended the towers, and brigades in the north tower did not hear calls to evacuate.

Since then, an unprecedented amount of federal money has been spent on communications gear and technology, expenses traditionally borne by state and local governments. The goal is to fix the communication problems faced on 9/11 — to create “interoperability” that allows first responders from different disciplines and jurisdictions to communicate. From 2004 to 2008, the only years for which detailed figures are available, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approved more than $4.3 billion in grant money to improve interoperability among first responders nationwide. DHS officials have said that more grant money has gone to interoperability than to any other initiative, and it continues to be a major focus for DHS grant programs, while also drawing funding from the economic stimulus package.

Yet for years, results have failed to live up to expectations. In 2004, then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge promised that by year’s end, it would be possible for most first responders to talk to each other in a crisis. But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina proved that the country was nowhere near ready to handle a real disaster. By 2009, DHS officials were still struggling to convince Congress that first responders could reach basic communications goals.

“The fundamental question all of us have is this,” said Rep. David Price, whose subcommittee oversees homeland security funding, at a hearing last March. “Why aren’t we making faster progress toward effective interoperability?”

An over-reliance on hardware

Part of the answer is that early on, Congress directed the vast majority of DHS interoperability dollars towards hardware: portable and car radios; “repeaters” that extended a signal’s range; antennae and tower systems. But an array of communications experts and even DHS officials say that equipment alone cannot create interoperability.

“There was a lack of understanding in the congressional committees about the importance of planning dollars, that you could waste money if you don’t plan,” says Harlin McEwen, a former police chief who chairs the communications committee at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “They didn’t want to spend money on things you couldn’t see.”

Support for those less tangible needs — sitting down at the table with counterparts, hashing out plans, establishing command-and-control protocols, training users — has come much more slowly. And experts say that without such support, the value of spending on equipment is questionable. A 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office warned that the lack of coordination was leading to investments in “independent interoperability systems that do not always support each others’ needs.”

DHS and Congress have increased support for planning and training. But as recently as 2008, more than 75 percent of interoperability dollars still went towards hardware.

The challenges of interoperability could offer lessons for any of the troubled homeland security initiatives launched after 9/11, from increased airport security to a “virtual fence” laden with sensors at the Mexican border. Billions have been spent in an effort to make America safer, but critics wonder whether the push primarily has benefited a burgeoning homeland security industrial complex. Perhaps the only hands-down winners have been the companies that supply communications equipment — Motorola, in particular. Billions in DHS funding have helped public safety agencies replace aging infrastructure, but the effects on those agencies’ interoperability capabilities vary widely. While some jurisdictions report substantive progress, for many of the responders risking their lives, the communication problems brought into sharp relief on 9/11 linger on.

History’s lessons

September 11 is only the most recent entry in a litany of disasters that documented the need for interoperability. Among them: the 1982 crash of an Air Florida Flight 90 into a Washington, D.C., bridge; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center bombing; the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building; and the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School.

In each case, as a grab-bag of agencies converged on the scene, precious time and efficiency were lost. “Many police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical service personnel working in the same city,” wrote a federal advisory commission in 1996, “cannot communicate with each other.”

The challenge is not just incompatible technology, but disparate cultures. “It’s like three high school [sports teams] in a city,” explains Chief Douglas Aiken, communications chair for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “They each want to win, and they each have their own funding. They might see each other and talk in passing, but they each are doing their own thing.”

When public safety agencies first began using radios, in the 1920s and ’30s, their equipment was built into cars and used primarily for dispatch. As radios became lighter and more portable, responders gradually came to consider them critical tools. The federal government assigned public safety departments slices of the radio spectrum — electromagnetic real estate — and each agency bought a radio system that operated only within specific frequencies. Systems from different manufacturers could not communicate.

Motorola, based in Schaumburg, Illinois, has long been the undisputed leader in public safety communications equipment, controlling about 80 percent of the U.S. market. By 2001 the firm had cemented its good standing with important groups like the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). The company often sponsors APCO’s state and local events at the most generous levels — “gold” for the 2009 national conference, for instance. Motorola has a few competitors — Harris Corporation, based in Melbourne, Florida, first among them — but local officials consider Motorola the safe choice.

When public safety radios began transitioning to digital technology, organizations like the police chiefs’ and fire chiefs’ associations resolved that they would require manufacturers to provide radios that worked together. In 1989, APCO, whose membership includes both government officials and industry players, began working with vendors to design a crucial series of standards for interoperability, known as Project 25 or P25. Radios that met the P25 criteria in theory would work together, regardless of vendor. The standards define eight different interfaces between various parts of a radio system: the first, for instance, allows two radios from different manufacturers to communicate directly to each other. On 9/11, though, the standards were still incomplete.

Few in the federal government had studied interoperability before 9/11, but in the wake of al-Qaeda’s attacks, policymakers were troubled by the chaotic responses, particularly at Ground Zero, where post-action reports identified a host of issues, from technical failures to breakdowns in command procedures. Emergency communications interoperability suddenly became a national crisis, and Congress turned to the industry and to first responders for solutions. Many first responders asked that Congress dedicate more spectrum to public safety. And Greg Brown, now CEO of Motorola, told Congress in 2003 that the “common, and key, requirements to achieving interoperability include spectrum, standards, and money.”

Money was the first to arrive. After 9/11, Congress began funneling emergency funds to all 50 states. Those funding streams turned into more formal grant programs in 2004: the State Homeland Security Grant Program provided a baseline amount of funding to all 50 states, and the Urban Area Security Initiative handed out additional money to cities that faced greater risks. State agencies charged with overseeing homeland security applied to these and other programs for cash to solve problems, including interoperability, then distributed their allocation to state agencies and local governments. These recipients needed new radio systems and Congress was telling them, go out and buy what you need.

Left out of this discussion, however, was one element that everyone now agrees is crucial: planning. While money began flowing towards interoperability, requirements to plan and coordinate have lagged badly behind expenditures on hardware.

“It is as important as the technology,” says Bob LeGrande, who headed the District of Columbia’s interoperability development. “One cannot exist without the other.”

Without strong relationships in place, agencies have worked towards achieving interoperability locally, without thinking on a regional level, leading to what the GAO has called “the narrow and specific use of DHS funding.” Or they have bought equipment that’s incompatible with surrounding jurisdictions. A 2007 audit of interoperability spending in Colorado worried: “Without … the context of a regional or statewide plan, it is unclear how much unmet need will be addressed by these funds.” DHS officials also worry about “islands of interoperability” — places where jurisdictions have upgraded to new technology without considering how they’ll connect with partners using old gear.

With the right equipment, in theory, every responder could talk to every other responder. Simple connectivity, though, does not guarantee coordination. On 9/11, in New York, those police officers and fire fighters whose radios could connect faced a different challenge. So many people were using the tactical channel meant for interoperability that it became overloaded — a cacophony in which important information could not get through.

The DHS vision for interoperability goes beyond networking first responders’ communication equipment. To DHS officials, interoperability means that officers will be able to communicate with anyone they need to, but only when they need to and when they are authorized to do so. To avoid chaos, they say, public safety officials need to establish strong command and control protocols, standard operating procedures, and, most of all, trust.

Robert Desourdis, an engineer and consultant who has studied interoperability, remembers one exercise during which, under pressure, agencies reverted to using their own systems, instead of using the new technology that was meant to connect them. As Col. G. Jerry Russell, director of the Idaho State Police, put it, “Technology without coordination results in inoperability.”

One academic study of DHS grant spending found that strong planning and coordination correlated with success at creating interoperability, while simply increasing funding did not. Chicago, for instance, has received more than $220 million dollars from the Urban Area Security Initiative grant program. Yet, in a 2007 evaluation of cities nationwide, the city earned DHS’ lowest score on governance, which measured the strength of the formal agreements that provide a foundation for communications planning. Erica Chenoweth and Susan Clarke, who conducted the study, concluded that Chicago’s performance “stems from politics rather than resources,” citing problems like disagreements between two neighboring counties, a lack of clear leadership and accountability, and unfamiliarity with standard operating procedures.

Building the sort of relationships that yield real interoperability can take years. LeGrande credits the success of the D.C. area’s system — one of the few to score 100% on the DHS evaluation — to work that began after the Air Florida crash in 1982. Chris Essid, head of the DHS Office of Emergency Communications, remembers how long it took for the planning process to start working well in Virginia, where he became the statewide interoperability coordinator in 2003. “Our first meeting, you had folks from the localities that didn’t trust the state folks,” he says. “It took a while to get these folks to realize — we have the same problem and we can help each other.”

But when DHS started doling out money, a lot of that hard work had simply not been done. In December 2006, the department reported, “Strategic plans for interoperability are the exception rather than the norm.”

And the lack of planning showed. “You had different fiefdoms doing their own thing,” says Veronique Pluviose-Fenton, a former aide to the House Homeland Security Committee. “It was almost like you were throwing money at the problem without measuring whether or not it was a solution.” Another congressional aide said there was “a lot of money floating around, and if a project met the right buzzword, it got funded.”

In Georgia, for instance, $11 million in federal funding helped build the Georgia Interoperability Network. Months after the system was installed, none of the 81 local dispatch centers connected to the network were using it, according to a 2008 audit.

In the first years of the grant programs, not all emergency management departments had the capacity to oversee the money coming in, either. “Many state and local governments were overwhelmed by the volume of money and the grant guidance,” says Bruce Baughman, a former FEMA official who also served as the director of the Alabama Emergency Management Association.

Chasing the money

As big money began flowing, a variety of companies saw a business opportunity. Raytheon pitched a product called the ACU-1000, a so-called gateway device that could hook multiple networks together to improve communications. Another popular idea: cells on wheels — COWs for short — involved trucks outfitted with radio gear that could be driven to a disaster site.

In this new gold rush, Motorola had a distinct advantage. Most public safety officials wanted to stick with the solution they knew — the land-based radio systems they already owned and operated — and upgrade to interoperable equipment. In this market, that meant P25 equipment, and in 2001, Motorola was the leading supplier, the only supplier of some P25 components for certain frequencies.

In 2001, though, P25 technology was far from perfect. The only standard that was fully developed was the “common air interface” that allowed individual radios to connect with each other. Standards that would link whole systems together were still in flux. Even so, after 9/11, the federal government recommended that grantees buy P25.

That was a boon for Motorola, as well as for competitors like Harris. “[Our] business is well positioned to participate in this emerging opportunity as customers solidify their funding for safety and security,” said a 2002 Motorola disclosure filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Motorola’s government business is not its largest component, but “it’s by far the most profitable thing they do,” says Tavis McCourt, a senior research analyst at investment firm Morgan Keegan, who follows the company. Motorola has reorganized several times since 2001, changing the way it reports profits, so tracking its public safety business is difficult. But in recent years, Motorola has identified homeland security as the driving force behind increased sales in its government business. In 2008, public safety drove the company’s $1.5 billion operating profit in its enterprise mobility sector; its mobile phone business, by contrast, lost $2.2 billion. Motorola recently announced that, starting in 2011, its government segment, which manufactures emergency radio equipment, will be spun off as part of an independent company. Motorola declined to respond to inquiries regarding this story.

Motorola: Lobbying and campaign cash

A variety of vendors positioned their products as the solution for interoperability, but none more aggressively than Motorola. Motorola’s lobbying budget nearly doubled, from just under $4 million in 2002 to $7.6 million in 2005, before dropping modestly in more recent years, according to Senate lobbying records. Alongside increasing in-house lobbying activities, outside lobbying assistance mushroomed, as well. In 2002, the company spent just $300,000 on contract lobbyists; in 2005, outside lobbyists reported $2.3 million in business from Motorola. Over that period, the number of lobbyists reporting Motorola as a client increased from 46 to 105. And while, before 9/11, the company’s work in Washington for public safety focused on spectrum regulation, by 2004, interoperability, now a powerful concept, appeared in all of its lobbying reports.

The company’s political action committee also increased its activity after 9/11. Contributions to political candidates jumped from $202,201 in the 2001-02 election cycle to more than $524,000 in 2005-06, before dipping just a bit in 2007-08, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Top recipients of Motorola contributions included Illinois politicians like Rep. Mark Kirk and Sen. Dick Durbin, as well as members with new security-related duties, like Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), the first chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), now chair of that panel’s emergency communications subcommittee. President Barack Obama did not accept donations from PACs during his presidential campaign, but his Senate campaign received $4,500 from the company between 2004 and 2006.

As money trickled down from the federal level, Motorola ramped up its lobbying in state capitals, as well. In New York, the company’s lobbying budget grew from $48,000 in 2005, when it listed no lobbying issues on disclosure documents, to more than $444,500 in 2008, when its focus was on public safety communications, according to state lobbying records. In California, Motorola’s lobbying increased from more than $74,000 in the 2003-2004 cycle to more than $171,000 in the 2007-2008 cycle.

On a federal level, the company’s effort focused on ensuring its products, including P25 systems, would be eligible for grant dollars. Motorola executives testified at numerous hearings on emergency communications problems, emphasizing the need for more dollars. Lobbyists also held meetings with officials at the Office of Management and Budget and at the Office of Homeland Security, who were hammering out the details on what sort of products grant money could buy.

A Motorola standard?

That work paid off. “The debate was driven by companies like Motorola and Ericsson [now Harris] to ensure that the solutions that were promoted were these large, statewide systems,” says one homeland security consultant who has worked with both state and federal governments.

Motorola wasn’t the only company peddling its equipment, of course. Homeland security leaders often mention those gateway devices, like Raytheon’s ACU-1000, as a cost-effective option for creating interoperability. (Whereas P25 systems can run into the hundreds of millions, gateways cost much less — nowadays, around $10,000.) But when DHS published its “interoperability continuum,” showing the steps public safety agencies could take to reach interoperability, gateways ranked lower.

Besides the continuum, it was the fine print of those DHS grant programs that provided the strongest push for state and local governments seeking interoperability money, and in 2003 and 2004, that fine print emphasized the systems meeting the P25 standards. “All radios purchased under this grant should be APCO 25 compliant,” stated an official DHS guidance to grant applicants. The language has softened since then, but DHS still says that the highest level of interoperability should include a “standards-based shared system,” in practice, a P25 system.

In the first years after 9/11, procurement requests from state and local officials for P25 systems often garnered only one bid, Motorola’s. An audit of a communications project in Alaska, for instance, reported that, because of the type of equipment the project was looking for — a P25 system — the only vendor able to fulfill their requirements was Motorola.

Although some officials chalk up Motorola’s lead in P25 to its dominance in the industry, others worry that Motorola’s long relationship with and support of APCO gave the company an additional boost. “The Motorola influence gets those standards written in a way that’s beneficial to them,” says one long-time public safety official.

A few different companies were involved in APCO’s standard-setting process from the beginning, but Motorola was by far the biggest and had the most resources to devote to research and development, according to sources familiar with the process.

“There have always been allegations that P25 was a Motorola standard,” says Chief McEwen. That’s because, he says, Motorola was the company that started developing products in cooperation with the public safety community’s push towards standards, while others were more reluctant. “We were encouraging all companies to participate in the standard, and Motorola was the one to do it,” he says.

Failing to meet requirements

While some jurisdictions praise their P25 systems, others have run into trouble. Delaware was one of the earlier adopters of P25 equipment, and state officials say the system has served them well. But New York State canceled a contract worth more than $2 billion for a statewide system built by Harris’ predecessor (then called M/A-Com), after the system failed a battery of tests. (The company disputed the test results and argued that the state canceled the contract for its own budgetary reasons.)

It is not clear that P25 equipment sold throughout this decade lives up to its promises, no matter who’s making it. Some essential standards are still in development, notably the one that will connect responders who use different vendors’ equipment and different frequencies. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) started testing P25 equipment in 2004, and in 2006 Dereck Orr, NIST’s program manager for public safety communications, reported to Congress, “NIST found that none of the available radios met all aspects of the standard.” In 2007, a GAO report recommended that DHS remove the P25 recommendation until the standards were finished.

“While states and localities have purchased Project 25 radios at the direction of DHS, there is little indication that these radios have enhanced interoperability,” the report stated. “Most jurisdictions we visited were not using the Project 25 capabilities.” DHS, however, boasted of “tremendous recent progress with P25” and said that that “muting the P25 language would remove all incentives for manufacturers to participate in completing the P25 standards.”

In 2007, DHS did promise to work with vendors to methodically verify if P25 products can actually interoperate across equipment from different manufacturer; grantees could then buy only those that passed. The department finally certified labs to test products in 2009. The first phase of testing applies only to the first standard — the common air interface, which allows radios to connect with each other. Certificates of compliance will be posted online; the first three were awarded to Harris in December 2009. These tests do not cover newer P25 equipment that links together systems operating on different frequency bands; DHS is working with public safety agencies to pilot a new technology, multi-band radios, which serves the same purpose.

Making progress

After years of giving out money for equipment, DHS is starting to focus more on planning. Following Hurricane Katrina, Congress created an ongoing interoperability grant program that supports planning, although, at $50 million per year, it represents only a fraction of the total dollars going to interoperability. Congress also pushed DHS to create the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC), which now works toward achieving interoperable emergency communications nationwide. The OEC has focused on tasks like helping states create statewide plans and interoperability governing bodies. For most of 2007, its first year of life, however, the office was short-handed.

Still, by October 2007, all 50 states had submitted plans for how they would achieve interoperability. Many of the original plans needed to be revised, however. As of July 2008, the OEC had created an emergency communications plan that set national interoperability goals for the first time, and reported significant progress. As of July 2009, 46 of 55 milestones set out for the plan’s first year were met.

OEC has also been meeting with statewide interoperability coordinators, many of whom are defining positions that did not exist a few years ago. Essid, the office’s director, says that 70 percent of the requests coming to OEC’s technical assistance lines are for help on governance, standard operating procedures, training, and exercises. Essid recalls one police officer pulling out his radio, and telling him: “I get more training on infectious diseases than on my radio. This thing knows how to do things I have no clue.”

There remains a fundamental dissonance between how legislators and public safety leaders look at interoperability. Congressional leaders often talk as if one more policy decision, like an increase in grant funding, will solve the interoperability problem. Public safety leaders and DHS officials, however, talk about interoperability as a core goal that will need attention for as long as technology advances. In this view, public safety workers regularly need to refresh their communications skills, the way police officers qualify to operate their weapons or fire fighters train with their equipment.

“In Congress, they tend to want to identify a problem, fix it, and go on to something else,” says Chief McEwen. But when it comes to interoperability, he says, “The problem will never be totally solved. It’s a moving target.”

G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this article.

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