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On July 31, 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) released the first-ever National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP), a joint initiative by public safety responders at the local, state and federal levels and the private sector. OEC Director Chris Essid is to be commended as he ensured that this plan was developed with direct involvement of fire service leaders. Further information may be found at http://www.safecomprogram.gov/SAFECOM/natlemergencycommplan/1372_nationalemergency.htm.
FIREHOUSE: How did you first become involved with interoperability?
ESSID: In December 2004, I accepted the job as Virginia's first Commonwealth Interoperability Coordinator. I had no idea what I was getting into! At that point, I understood the basic concept of interoperability, but like most, I underestimated the complexity of the problem.
FIREHOUSE: Did you have any prior background in public safety?
ESSID: I served as a police officer with the Army Military Police from 1993 to 1998. Like all emergency responders, I depended on my radio as a lifeline for assistance and information that could save lives.
FIREHOUSE: How did your background affect your ability to perform as Virginia's interoperability coordinator?
ESSID: My background as an emergency responder gave me an important understanding of the critical nature of the problem. I recall several dead spots where radios would not work and several instances when civilian law enforcement could not talk to military police even though they were right outside our base. This was very frustrating to the emergency responders, but gives me a good understanding of why this issue must be solved.
FIREHOUSE: As one of the first state interoperability coordinators in the country, what challenges/opportunities did that present?
ESSID: Virginia gave me the opportunity to define a full-time position focused on interoperable communications, develop the Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC) and develop the nation's first Statewide Communication Interoperability Plan (SCIP). Overall, the opportunity was there to develop relationships among different groups of emergency responders and various levels of government. We have made great strides in these areas. At the end of the day when everyone sits down and discusses interoperability, they find they have 90% of the same problems.
FIREHOUSE: As the first and former Virginia interoperability coordinator, what were some of the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
ESSID: We had challenges in Virginia just like every other state. First, we had to move the SIEC from ad hoc to being established by Governor's Executive Order. Once this was completed, we had to secure funding and then actually implement the initiatives in the newly developed SCIP. We realized that having just one person try to implement the SCIP would not work, so Virginia created the Commonwealth Interoperability Coordinator's Office (CICO) within the Governor's Office of Commonwealth Preparedness. The CICO serves as the project management office to ensure SCIP development and implementation while also serving as the liaison between the Governor's Office and the SIEC.
FIREHOUSE: What do you consider some of the biggest accomplishments in Virginia?
ESSID: It would be the partnerships we created among the various emergency responder organizations and state and local leadership. Creating strong governance is critical and the volunteers on the Virginia SIEC and the larger Advisory Group were the catalysts that helped us drive the change to make a difference.
FIREHOUSE: What do you consider the most important reasons for Virginia being recognized as a leader in interoperability?
ESSID: In my opinion, every effort needs champions and this is no exception. The Governor's Assistant for Commonwealth Preparedness, Bob Crouch, was our biggest champion at the state level of government. He helped communicate the importance of the effort and obtain the resources needed to implement change. Additionally, the emergency responders on the SIEC served as champions to their respective practitioner groups to assist in driving change.
FIREHOUSE: How would you define interoperability and what is required to achieve it?
ESSID: Interoperability is simply the ability to communicate and share information (voice and/or data) as needed and when authorized. In my opinion, interoperability is a 90% coordination and 10% technology problem. Technologies assist in allowing us to be interoperable, but we must establish governance to discuss a coordinated path forward. In addition, we must develop standard operating procedures and conduct training and exercises to ensure that when incidents take place, we are ready and communication will not become an issue.
FIREHOUSE: What made you decide to pursue the director's position?
ESSID: I wanted to bring the lessons I learned in Virginia to the national level -- particularly that increased coordination among the federal, state, local and tribal levels of government will lead to more progress in advancing emergency communications around the nation. We have a responsibility to our emergency responders and to our citizens to ensure interoperability and emergency communications are something they can count on during day-to-day or disaster situations.
FIREHOUSE: What are the unique challenges that you face on a daily basis?
ESSID: OEC prides itself on being a practitioner-driven office; therefore, collaborating with our stakeholders at all levels of government is very important. The challenge lies in coordinating our efforts with so many stakeholders that we ensure everything that comes out of OEC reflects the input from the emergency response community -- the boots on the ground. Fortunately, so many practitioners from across the nation volunteer their time to help OEC develop practical and relevant initiatives to improve emergency communications. They participate in focus groups and organizations like the Federal Partnership for Interoperable Communications, SAFECOM Emergency Response Council and its Executive Committee. The response has been tremendous and it shows we are all focused on improving interoperability.
FIREHOUSE: What are the key issues and vision for OEC and interoperability?
ESSID: OEC strives to support and promote the ability of emergency responders and government officials to continue to communicate in the event of natural disasters, acts of terrorism or other man-made disasters. OEC's vision is to work toward nationwide interoperability. OEC's key issues include effectively coordinating and collaborating with its stakeholders, developing policy and planning that promotes its vision, and providing technical assistance to states and territories in support of their efforts to achieve nationwide interoperability.
CHARLES WERNER, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service and is fire chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Chief Werner serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, the SAFECOM Executive Committee and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board.