Group Project

Federal and state sources will pump funds into communications interoperability, but money isn't the only factor in success.

by / April 16, 2002
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 D.C.," said Ake. "People have put in mobile data systems and they are like stovepipes -- they can't talk to anybody else. Think of CapWIN as a bridge between those disparate systems."

The technology behind CapWIN includes a regional mobile data switch to provide mobile data technology to agencies currently without those capabilities -- generally state police, transportation agencies and some local fire departments. CapWIN also includes a middleware gateway designed to connect existing mobile data systems throughout the region. This will give public safety and emergency response agencies the ability to exchange messages and access information regardless of the type of mobile data system they use.

Ake said the project, which should be operational in about a year, surmounted several challenges peculiar to initiatives spanning numerous jurisdictions. Foremost among them: How to govern a technology undertaking that includes state police from Maryland and Virginia, the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Park Police, Virginia Department of Transportation, Maryland State Highway Administration, and a number of local police and fire agencies.

CapWIN's 29-member executive board has been fundamental to guiding the initiative and giving all participants a voice in project decisions. The board comprises representatives of nearly all organizations involved in the project, and it promotes a spirit of partnership that may have been missing in past multi-jurisdictional initiatives, according to Ake.

"Board members set the direction, so each agency that's involved has input into where this thing is going," he said. "If you don't have the buy in and involvement of all of the agencies, and they don't all have some input on how things are going, then the project is not going to be a success."

The organization, which took about 8 months to assemble, acts as CapWIN's board of directors, Ake said. "We just try to do what they want done."

A best practices study conducted for CapWIN by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that high-level involvement would be crucial to overcoming individual and institutional barriers to the project. CapWIN's executive board reflects that philosophy; it's stacked with elected officials, area police and fire chiefs, state police colonels and agency directors.

The high-powered group is key to maintaining support for the project and eliminating potential sticking points, Ake said. "That board is the lynch pin; this project won't work without it."

Where to locate CapWIN's technology hardware posed one such test. The project originally intended to house the mobile data switch and other equipment at facilities operated by the Washington/Baltimore High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDA) program. Now, CapWIN plans to locate the hardware at a neutral location.

"When you put it at a particular agency, the tendency is for everyone to think that it's owned by that particular police department of fire unit," Ake said. "It's no reflection on anybody; it's just perception. Our executive board wants us to be neutral."

With those issues behind it, the project now confronts the task of covering the system's ongoing operation and maintenance costs. Federal grants have paid those bills so far, but CapWIN is developing a long-term business plan to handle continuing expenses.

Ake envisions a strategy where participating state and local agencies pay user fees to access the system based on their size. Federal agencies would pay for access on a per-transaction basis. Again, Ake expects the executive board to play a vital role in building acceptance for the plan once it is complete.

"Operational cost is a bridge we will have to cross, and the executive board is very aware of that," he said. "They're very comfortable that they can cross it without a problem."

One Mississippi ...

The ASP initiative will build a wireless data network to deliver digital mug shots, arrest reports, robbery reports and other information to officers' patrol cars. Participants in the two-year initiative include sheriffs' departments in the southern Mississippi counties of Harrison, Hancock and Jackson, as well as local police agencies from a number of municipalities within those jurisdictions.

ASP will create a central database of law enforcement information accessible to all project participants. The project will equip 160 Harrison County Sheriff's vehicles with mobile data terminals and software by August. Other participants will gain access to the system soon afterward.

Like CapWIN, ASP formed a governing board comprising representatives from participating agencies. "If you don't do that, you won't get cooperation," said Harrison County's Parker.

He added that leadership is another key factor in uniting a disparate group of public safety agencies. "The really hard part -- and the reason why it hasn't often been done -- is getting all of the jurisdictional leaders to agree on a common goal," he said. Parker credits Harrison County Sheriff George Payne, a 27-year law enforcement veteran, with providing the vision needed to push ASP forward. "You need someone strong enough and respected enough that others will follow their lead," he said.

But even with high-level backing, working out the details of interoperability can be remarkably time consuming. For example, Parker estimates he spent nine months forging agreement on a joint custody form that will be used by ASP participants when they arrest a suspect.

"Every municipality had a different form and everybody had their little nuances to it," he said. "I thought I'd get it hacked out in a month, but it took a lot of doing."

There was no secret formula for achieving agreement, just plenty of hard work, said Parker. "You just have to be totally aggressive. Don't let anything languish. You have to give people dates and make sure those dates are met."

After the joint custody form was finished, however, similar issues were solved more quickly. "Once we got through that hurdle, everybody saw that we could do it," he said. "All you have to do is clear that first hurdle and the rest get a little easier."

It also helps that participants are getting their first taste of interoperability's benefits. Harrison County recently unveiled a wireless booking system for nearby municipalities that use the county jail. Prior to ASP, local city police forces booked and photographed arrestees at their headquarters, then transported the suspects to the county facility. Because the city and county booking systems were not integrated, suspects had to be booked and photographed again when they reached the jail.

Now booking information wirelessly flows from city police to the county. Using a common booking form and a wireless microwave relay, officers simply push a button to send the arrestee's data to the jail.

"The information is sitting at the jail when officers arrive. They don't have to wait 30 minutes while all the paper work is filled out. They don't have to take another picture. They just drop off the arrestee and they are history," Parker said. "It saves a lot of officer time, and that's a very practical benefit."
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. 

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