May 9th, 2012

By William Jackson

Research and development grants are available from the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate to help the technology needs of first responders, but matching the money with the needs of state and local agencies has proved difficult, a House panel was told May 9.

A joint hearing of two Homeland Security Committee subcommittees questioned federal officials about efforts to prioritize R&D spending and questioned local officials on how their needs are being met. Despite a formal program to assess needs of the first responder community, there was no clear list of new technologies that would meet everyone’s needs, lawmakers were told. At the same time, budget cuts are threatening the development of technical standards for equipment needed by departments.

Edward Kilduff, chief of New York City’s Fire Department, told the Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications and Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies subcommittees that his department has its own R&D program that tests all new technologies before they are rolled out. Kilduff said he works closely with DHS.

But most departments do not have that luxury. Annette Doying, director of the Pasco County, Fla., Emergency Management Office, said many local departments depend on equipment purchased on the basis of lowest bid and vendor claims. She said agencies need not only financial help in procuring new technology but government standards and testing programs to help ensure quality and interoperability.

Providing state and local first responders with better situational awareness and interoperable communications has been a concern of the federal government’s since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the DHS Science and Technology Directorate has established a first responder programs area to provide grant funding.

The Government Accountability Office has concluded that the directorate’s programs have not been adequately aligned with agency needs.

Robert Griffin, director of the directorate’s First Responders Division, said the division has established a program, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to set funding priorities based on technology need. It has identified five high-priority areas:

  • High-fidelity simulation tools to support incident management and response training.
  • Real-time monitoring of the tactical actions and progress of all responders involved in an incident.
  • Real-time locational awareness for responders and their proximity to risks and hazards.
  • The ability to communicate with responders in any environment, including through barriers, inside buildings and underground.
  • Protective clothing and equipment to protect against multiple hazards, including heat, smoke, blood-borne or airborne pathogens, and projectiles.

In addition to supporting R&D in these areas, the program also facilitates commercial development of technologies. A number of interoperable communications systems have been moved to market, including:

  • Multi-band radios that allow responders to communicate across departmental and jurisdictional lines are available from four manufacturers, Thales Communications, Harris Corp., Datron World Communications and Motorola Solutions.
  • A Bridging Systems Interface Core Profile for standardized implementations of voice-over-IP to enable interoperability among legacy analog radio systems and newer digital systems. Thirteen manufacturers voluntarily adopted the BSI platform, and others have committed to doing so in their next product cycles.
  • Virtual USA, a virtual pipe that allows sharing of data between departments, now is in use in 23 states.
  • Commercial Mobile Alert Service, which provides a national capability to deliver geographically targeted messages to mobile devices. Testing programs for the system are under way.
  • The Emergency Data Exchange Language standards suite, to enable the exchange of data between any type of device, and provide the ability to exchange alerts, notifications and public warnings and facilities status information.

Kiersten Todt Coon, president and CEO of Liberty Group Ventures, which works with state and local governments, said there is unnecessary duplication of effort and spending in some programs. She cited Northern Virginia Emergency Response System, a Web portal for communicating with citizens that was developed with DHS funding in Arlington County.

“Arlington has learned that through other grants, Washington, D.C., and Fairfax County have each developed a related technology,” Coon said. Similar systems have been developed separately in Florida and Louisiana. “What is remarkable is that it appears that all of these were developed with government funding, and with limited, if any knowledge, of the others,” she said.

At the same time, budget cuts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have interrupted or scaled back standards development for some first-responder technologies, said Mary Saunders, director of NIST’s Standards Coordination Office. Among disrupted projects are standards for protective clothing and respirator masks at high temperatures, and design guidelines for ambulance patient compartments.

Although NIST does not itself set industry standards, it is a member of many recognized standard-setting organizations and participates in the consensus-based programs for creating technical standards.