It's likely that emergency response agencies will see more funding for interoperable communication systems in the wake of the September terrorist attacks. But money alone won't forge links between police, fire and emergency medical agencies with long histories of acting independently.

Multi-jurisdictional IT initiatives force agencies to confront issues that simply don't arise in single-department projects. As demand and funding for interoperability increase, more jurisdictions will wrestle with building support for complex multi-agency projects and creating the mechanisms to govern them, finding suitable locations for shared technology assets, covering ongoing costs, and designing work processes that meet the needs of diverse participants.

President Bush's proposed 2003 budget includes $3.5 billion to help law enforcement and public safety agencies respond when disaster strikes. A good chunk of this spending will be funneled into technology designed to let multiple first-response agencies talk to one another. Communications interoperability also figures prominently in the homeland security plans of many states. For instance, Maryland is spending $400,000 on an integrated emergency network designed to weave hundreds of police and fire radio frequencies into a unified communications web.

Even before the assaults on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, federal funding sources had been giving multi-jurisdiction initiatives a warm reception, according to representatives of several groundbreaking projects.

"[The Department of Justice] is more prone to look kindly at multi-jurisdictional projects because there just aren't any," said Robert Parker, financial officer for the Harrison County Sheriff's Department, which is lead agency for a mobile data project serving 13 law enforcement agencies in three southern Mississippi counties. Known as the Automated System Project (ASP), the undertaking received $6 million in federal funds this year and participants hope to capture another $12 million for fiscal 2003.

"We're planning on being a poster child for multi-jurisdictional information sharing," Parker said. "We wouldn't have gotten the funding if we would have gone about this any other way."

Interoperability also was key to winning funds for the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN), which participants describe as the nation's first multi-state transportation and public safety network. Initial funding came from the U.S. Department of Transportation and transportation agencies in Maryland and Virginia. With the support of area lawmakers, CapWIN secured a congressional earmark for more resources this year. "We presented this idea to them, and being business people, they saw this certainly as a positive thing," said George Ake, CapWIN project coordinator at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology.

All of this points to more dollars flowing into multi-agency and multi-state communication efforts, but emergency response agencies face a series of challenges that make interoperability difficult to achieve even when resources are available to pick up the tab.

"The politics of local government is huge when you're talking about planning for a multi-jurisdictional law enforcement," said Gary Cooper, executive director of SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. "One of the biggest issues we deal with is governance structures for integrated systems: How do you set up the appropriate committees and subcommittees and build the executive-level buy in you need to empower those committees?"

Both CapWIN and ASP offer a glimpse into the issues facing state and local governments as they attempt to break down the barriers to interoperable communications.

Capital Connections

CapWIN will provide integrated data communications to police, fire, EMS and transportation agencies in Washington D.C.'s Capital beltway area, as well as to emergency management and police departments in Virginia and Maryland. The project is designed to ease communication difficulties that plague Washington's metropolitan region, where more than 100 fire, transportation, police and emergency medical agencies respond to public safety incidents, according to CapWIN's strategic plan. Each of those agencies uses a different communications system.

"This will pretty much connect all the disparate systems around

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.