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Before the 9/11 attacks, interoperability was not high on Washington’s agenda. A little-noticed federal program had studied the issue, recommending a handful of “best practices,” and the few bureaucrats who took an interest in the problem worked without much encouragement.

“My boss said, ‘If that’s what you want to work on — interoper … whatever it is — go ahead,’” recalls David Boyd, who now heads a Department of Homeland Security division focused on improving communications. “It was at a meeting three years later that he finally said, ‘I get it. This is kind of important.’”

The 2001 terrorist attacks changed the rhetoric dramatically. Since 9/11, DHS officials and members of Congress who focus on homeland security have repeatedly assured first responders that interoperability ranks high on their list of priorities. But the budgets and staffing of the programs designed to focus on the issue tell an entirely different story. For most of the past eight years, the federal government’s interoperability initiatives have been under-funded, sparsely staffed, and buried in layers of bureaucracy.

The first of the federal government’s alphabet soup of projects — the Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications Program, or SAFECOM — was launched in 2002. SAFECOM was meant to last 18 to 24 months and foster interoperability between emergency responders at all levels of government. But in its first two years, it “made very limited progress in addressing this objective,” the Government Accountability Office reported in 2004. The project had four different management teams in three different agencies in its first 20 months and received less than half of the funding it had been promised, the GAO found.

The sound bites, though, continued to sound encouraging. On the first anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, in 2004, Secretary Tom Ridge said improving interoperability was one of the department’s most important goals for the coming year. He spoke of the bravery of first responders and called their communications problems “a long-standing, complex, and critical issue facing this nation.”

“We all must work together to give them the tools to do their jobs — in a way that replaces outdated, outmoded relics with an interoperable, innovative, and integrated system,” he said.

As part of his 2004 promise to focus on the issue, Secretary Ridge created an Office of Interoperability and Communications, or OIC, in the department’s Science & Technology directorate; SAFECOM was folded in. But by March 2006, the office had filled only four out of its 16 authorized full-time positions. When pressed by Rep. David Reichert on the issue, the new DHS secretary, Michael Chertoff promised, “I have kind of identified this as a personal project to get done this year … We have to fish or cut bait, stop debating it and endlessly discussing it.”

By that time, Hurricane Katrina had renewed interest in interoperability among lawmakers; in fall 2006, Congress created yet another DHS interoperability program, the Office of Emergency Communications, or OEC. This new office was meant to be the focal point on interoperability for the entire federal government. But even before the office was established, it had run into trouble. A push from members of Congress like Rep. Nita Lowey to elevate the interoperability issue by creating an assistant secretary of emergency communications to head the OEC failed; instead, the office was tucked into the Cybersecurity and Communications division of DHS. Like the OIC that Ridge established, the OEC was initially short-handed: when director Chris Essid joined the team in December 2007, he was the office’s fourth employee, he testified to Congress. By 2009, the office had filled just half of its full time positions, Essid reported.

Congressional aides who focus on homeland security maintain that interoperability has not gotten the attention it needs from higher-ups.

“At the end of the day the secretary is the one who’s supposed to be pushing these agendas, and it’s been neglected,” says one former congressional staffer. “What’s been most prominent on the Hill in terms of homeland security? It hasn’t been interoperability.”

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