How Homeland Security is marking emergency communications month

Lots of things have days, like National Ice Cream Day. Lots of things have whole months, like USDA Invasive Plant Pest Month. So why not emergency communication...

Lots of things have days, like National Ice Cream Day. Lots of things have whole months, like USDA Invasive Plant Pest Month. So why not emergency communications? Emergency Communications Month is in fact going on right now. And for an update on developments in this field, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  with Billy Bob Brown, executive assistant director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin Let’s begin with a little definition here. Emergency communications used to be 4G and radio. What constitutes emergency communications?

Billy Bob Brown So emergency communications is really the interconnected ecosystem of information supporting the safety of the citizen. It encompasses voice, video, data and information services in the cloud. It includes requests for assistance from citizens using 911 response coordination efforts in incident command between government response organizations. Notifications or alerts and warnings that are authoritative from government to citizen, and finally citizen to citizen Public information exchange, which includes critical infrastructures sharing mission essential information for restoration, as well as information by our non-governmental disaster relief organizations.

Tom Temin So in many ways, it’s a system of systems, you might say.

Billy Bob Brown That’s exactly right.

Tom Temin And so this idea of interoperability, that’s what everyone is pursuing, because these used to be stovepiped types of systems. Police had radios, and the radios worked with other radios in a given geographical area, and that was it. Otherwise, you had to pick up the phone and the radio had no communication with the phone. The Holy Grail now seems to be one device that is multimodal and multi-system.

Billy Bob Brown I like to think about interoperability from the perspective of the stakeholders. So we partner with emergency communications officials all across the nation to address interoperability, and we support a group that assembles consisting of public safety communications officials from 35 different public safety affiliated associations. That group is called SAFECOM. SAFECOM has defined interoperability as the ability to seamlessly share emergency information on demand when authorized as needed in order to support emergency activities. There are five lanes of the interoperability continuum described by SAFECOM. They are governance, standing operating procedures, training and exercises, usage and technology. Only one of those lanes is technologies, the other four lanes or 80% of the interoperability challenge is related to people. That’s why CISA is in the business of creating partnerships.

Tom Temin All right. And before we get to that whole partnership question, I just wanted to ask you maybe for an update on, what I remember from a number of years ago, was the holy grail of, say, building [Computer-aided design (CAD)] layout, architectural information, chemical information that might be in a facility, all of this type of thing that might exist in some digital format somewhere, being able to get fed to emergency responders. Is that further along than it was when I last checked?

Billy Bob Brown Sure. Yes, it is. And it’s continuing to move along, but it’s continuing to evolve kind of a long continuum. Now, we have not reached the panacea where all of that kind of seamless light our information about in building design is seamlessly available. But certainly, with the advent of 5G being able to deliver faster speeds of millimeter wave communications, that ability to deliver that form of information to emergency responders on the go is on the way.

Tom Temin Because you would think when say, a train tips over, and they seem to be doing that a lot these days. If the responders knew what was being spilled precisely, and knew the topology of where they were operating, they might be able to have a more effective response faster.

Billy Bob Brown Yeah, I argue that it makes for a more effective emergency response. You can determine which resources are necessary, because you have a better understanding of what the actual situation is.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Billy Bob Brown. He’s executive assistant director for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the whole communications piece there. And tell us about the partnership idea. I imagine it begins at home, because there’s lots of federal agencies, along with CISA, even other parts of [Department of Homeland Security (DHS)], that are in this fight.

Billy Bob Brown You’re 100%. And CISA supports a team of partners across the federal departments and agencies. We call that the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center, and it includes 14 departments and agencies all working together to address and improve interoperable emergency communications. This team actually gathers, they discuss lessons learned. They come to consensus around best practices and then annually work together to partner and create an annual strategic assessment to improve emergency communications, which turns out to be a report that’s provided to Congress annually.

Tom Temin And I imagine that CISA brings to this the cybersecurity flavor, because as communications become more interrelated and more digital, the cyber threat, which never existed in the radio days or in the pots days, is now the basic issue here for interoperability.

Billy Bob Brown Yep, that’s exactly right. And as you probably remember, 12 years ago, we started talking about the evolution of responder communications, moving from just land mobile radio to include telephony and all of the broadband capabilities, to include the use of data at the incident site. And we knew that there would come some period of time when everything was all IP enabled. We are now in what I call the messy middle, as we continue to race towards all IP interconnectedness. We have to start talking about cyber vulnerabilities, because all of those systems are cyber vulnerable.

Tom Temin Somehow, no matter what the medium of transmission is nowadays, 5G or radio waves. IP, Internet protocol is really becoming the defacto standard, correct?

Billy Bob Brown Yes, that is correct. And it is helpful because IP offers a different level of robustness, because it is not confined to a particular circuit path.

Tom Temin And what can the federal partnership do to help local jurisdictions? Because if you take New York City, they’re probably pretty high up on the scale of sophistication of emergency communications. But you get to some of the small and rural areas, there are still maybe years behind.

Billy Bob Brown You’re exactly right, the way you sort of describe it. At every level of government decisions to support public safety communications are made by executive decision makers, provide essential services, based on the allocation of resources available, in the largest metropolitan areas where there are millions of people. And businesses there, they have ample resources. The smaller rural jurisdictions they are challenged, and they’re making challenges based on the availability to include some commercial service availability in those areas. 18 months ago, as an example, I was in New Mexico and getting briefed by a group of state troopers, and there was a 20 mile stretch along the interstate highway. There was no commercial communications infrastructure available. And the troopers did not go into that area unless they had satellite phone capabilities. So, as you sort of mentioned earlier, I think about how we’re trying to create a whole of nation approach to interoperability. And it really is a system of systems approach, recognizing what state and local and tribal and territorial jurisdictions have based on their own executive decision makers and resources available, or resources that they can put together, to meet them where they are to try and solve the challenges of interoperability, according to those five lands I described earlier.

Tom Temin There must be federal grant programs for those jurisdictions to acquire maybe the gear they need to be interoperable and high end in their comms. But earlier you said that 80% of the issue is people. And so, with interoperability and the latest gear, there’s a big training and education component.

Billy Bob Brown That’s exactly right. And there are grants. And in fact, one of the emergency communications preparedness or the federal departments and agencies getting together is to try and look at grants that are provided by federal organizations to see that those federal assistance requests have some adherence to safe comms grant guidance in order to allow for jurisdictions to or to request some of that assistance in a way that will facilitate the improvement of interoperability.

Tom Temin Yeah. So that Bakelite microphone hanging on a little hook in a squad car, that’s kind of going the way of the bubblegum machine on top.

Billy Bob Brown That’s right.

Tom Temin All right. And it is emergency communications month, as we indicated. What special is going on.

Billy Bob Brown So there is a ton going on and I’m super excited about recognizing emergency communicators all across the nation. So we are all about partnerships. And just last week, I was at the International Wireless Expo and Convention. I participated in a key discussion for the participants, and I included on that panel discussion with two of our public safety partners, asking them about the importance of emergency communications month to the state and local public safety practitioners. This month we are also launching a campaign that we call, Get Connected and Stay connected, to discuss the importance of CISA’s priority services to critical infrastructure and to governments at every level. We join our federal partners, we will celebrate 911 Heroes during National Public Safety Telecommunications week. And we are looking forward to launching this month, the next, in our five year survey, the safe calm nationwide survey, which will help do an assessment of emergency communications capabilities and interoperability nationwide.


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