Chertoff: We’ll have the 25-year-old interoperability problem fixed by next year

by on November 28, 2006

According to Congress Daily, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff “said today his department will ensure that the highest-risk urban areas have interoperable [public safety] communications equipment by the end of next year, and that all states have it by the end of 2008.” DHS has been under pressure from the incoming Democratic majority to do something about the lack of communications among first responders. According to the article,

Without explicitly acknowledging the looming pressure for faster action, Chertoff told a conference of emergency response officials that metropolitan regions under his department’s Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program will have interoperable communications by the end of the 2007 calendar year, followed by all states by the end of 2008.

Chertoff said the department will give urban locations “interoperability scorecards” next month to help them decide how much money to seek in their upcoming grant applications. He did not provide additional details during his speech.

A Homeland Security Department aide would only add: “We will have further info at later date, as well as further info on the grant guidance.”

The whole speech is here, but it doesn’t really add much. I’m not sure what to make of this, but if the interoperability problem could be solved so simply, by just giving more money in federal grants to states and localities, then we would have fixed it a long time ago. As the Katrina Commission pointed out in its report, “Although some New Orleans and Louisiana state officials attribute the lack of true interoperability for first responders in the region to financial limitations, this explanation flies in the face of the massive amounts of federal grants to Louisiana.” Among other things, the interoperability problem is caused by a collective action problem, which in turn is cause by a spectrum policy that gives each of 50,000 public safety agencies their own (untradable) spectrum license and thus the impetus to build their own custom radio system. Coordination among these 50,000 actors is not easy, and I don’t see how more money will help.

Luckily, the Mercatus Center and Tom Hazlett’s Tech Center at GMU are putting on a symposium along with the FCLJ that will try to offer some solutions for the interoperability issue on Friday, Dec. 8. You’re intvited. Presenting papers on the topic will be Gerald Faulhaber, Jon Peha, Phil Weiser, and yours truly.

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