Three panels discussed lessons learned about the effective use of IT in disaster management, technological and organizational barriers to the introduction and adoption of new IT systems, and types of IT that could be of particular use in disaster management.

Panelists made a number of points characterizing the challenges of providing more interoperable communications for disaster management across federal, state, and local agencies:

  • Most communications interoperability issues are not technical. Better human organization, willingness to cooperate, and a willingness of government at higher levels to listen to those at local levels who really do the work and who are the actual responders are all critical factors in making better use of information technology for disaster management.

  • Adoption of new equipment and systems that provide greater interoperability will take a long time. A speaker estimated at more than $60 billion the total amount invested by localities in their public safety communications infrastructure. Such an investment can be replaced only over decades.

Discussing the federal role in improving interoperability, panelists observed that:

  • Disaster management—and the supporting IT infrastructure—is firmly rooted at the local level. Local organizations provide most of the infrastructure, personnel, and other resources. More than 90 percent of wireless public safety infrastructure is owned, operated, and maintained by localities. A speaker estimated that the total federal investment in interoperable communications represents something less than 3 percent of what the nation spends on public safety wireless communications. Local first responders make up the vast majority of day-to-day users. Even in an event on the scale of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, the federal presence, which was massive by normal standards, represented a fraction of 1 percent of all personnel involved. By virtue of their primary responsibility and reflecting long-standing organizational culture, localities and their police and fire services have, and generally seek to maintain, control of their communications systems.

  • As a result, the federal role in improving interoperability is limited largely to providing guidance, coordination, and technical assistance. The federal government could, for example, provide a road map, a policy framework, and an architectural framework to create a system of systems. It could also support initiatives that motivate local agencies to move toward standards-based systems. A number of federal programs, including the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM, are aimed at providing such support.

  • Federal interoperability activities are diverse and themselves require coordination. For example, the Homeland Security Act identifies no less than three separate agencies as responsible for aspects of interoperability. Indeed, more than 60 programs deal with interoperability across the federal government. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility has created an umbrella program to coordinate these federal interoperability efforts. Interagency efforts are also underway to address the need for coordination. Still needed are a road map and a more coherent policy framework within which federal agencies can work together.

Commenting on activities at the state and local level, panelists noted that:

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