A study by the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) Program revealed good and bad news about the state of public safety wireless interoperable communications in the country.

The National Interoperability Scorecard showed a 41 percent increase in national wireless interoperability scores in 2003 from 2001. The bad news is that just 14 states have upgraded their technology enough to allow various public safety agencies to talk to one another during an emergency.

The 14 states lauded by the study were Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah. The remaining 36 states are vulnerable during a crisis situation that would require interoperable wireless communication, according to the study.

"It is very good news," said Rick Murphy, PSWN program manager, Department of Homeland Security. "The downside of Sept. 11 was the attack, but the upside was that it did bring the concerns of communications to the forefront. That raising of awareness alone caused a lot of actions to be taken to improve wireless interoperability everywhere."

Murphy said the 14 states that demonstrated interoperability indicates a marked improvement from the two that were defined as having interoperability during the 2001 survey. "Also, the other states that haven't gotten to that point yet are getting to that point because what they found out when they started to investigate things is that the costs are very big and the cooperation of partnerships was a big obstacle."

Those barriers are beginning to fall, albeit slowly, he said. "Funding is such a large ticket item that they are having to phase in their approaches."

Ninety percent of public safety agencies use portable wireless radios to communicate, but the technologies vary and don't bridge jurisdictional and departmental lines. A priority since 9-11 has been to find ways to integrate the disparate systems.

The 2001 assessment placed states in one of four categories: new, developing, established or mature. Most states fell into the "developing" category during the 2001 study. The categories were changed to "new," "developing," and "established" on the 2003 scorecard. The 14 aforementioned states were in the "established" category.

The scorecard measures interoperability in terms of five key areas: coordination and partnerships, funding, spectrum, standards and technology, and security. The most significant improvements in the 2003 assessment were recorded in areas of security, standards and technology, and coordination and partnerships, according to the PSWN.

The PSWN Program collected data from state-level communications personnel who operate or manage statewide communications systems, or key players in interoperability within their states. The program then calculated an interoperability score in each of the six areas for each of the states. The states' scores were compiled and totaled and averaged to create a national interoperability score of 57.65 on a scale of 100. The 2001 score was 40.82.

The PSWN Program provided assistance to the lower rated states after the 2001 assessment, although most still remain in the "developing" category. Many jurisdictions are being slowed by budget constraints that are limiting their ability to invest in technological improvements.

"Without an infusion of federal dollars there won't be a jumpstart of these systems of interoperability," Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network recently told Stateline. "Most states are waiting for this to happen to develop these partnerships and secure the funding for the equipment."

Jim McKay, Editor  |  Editor