Meet the FCC's Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau Chief

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The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau (http://www.fcc.gov/pshs/) officially began operations on Sept. 25, 2006. This bureau is responsible for developing, recommending and administering the commission's policies pertaining to public safety communications issues. These policies include 911 and enhanced 911 (E911); operability and interoperability of public safety communications; communications infrastructure protection and disaster response; and network security and reliability.

Derek K. Poarch is the bureau's first chief. I participated in the FCC's first public safety forum, listened to Chief Poarch speak at national programs, met him in person and conducted this interview. Chief Poarch is a man who is highly motivated, dedicated, knowledgeable and persuasive. He described his new post as a "dream" job that came at the right time. After a 30-year career in public safety (serving as director of public safety and chief of police at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and living through 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina; he knows what needs to be done. Chief Poarch affirmed, "Interoperability in our work saves lives" and explained that he thrives on change and "this job is definitely facing some of the most significant changes in public safety communications in decades."

Another of the chief's distinguishing traits that make his appointment particularly appropriate is his love of a fast-paced environment. Chief Poarch said he could not be more pleased with the relationships with the FCC commissioners, public safety peers and staff, acknowledging, "It's all about relationships." A key point that Chief Poarch made was that Chairman Kevin J. Martin and the other FCC commissioners are engaged and listen to input from public safety and the bureau.

There are so many aspects of this job that Chief Poarch finds intriguing. Each day offers something new and issues like 800 MHz rebanding, 700 MHz, the digital TV transition, E911 and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), each requiring varying levels of attention. Chief Poarch said he is learning every day, but believes that he will never learn it all. He enjoys working with people with so many different skill sets and talented individuals such as engineers and lawyers.

When Chief Poarch and I last spoke, the bureau was in the midst of a health care summit to explore telemedicine and related topics. When discussing future forums and workshops; the staff considers issues that are important to citizens, public safety, the government and the communications industry. On the horizon, there will be a focus on the needs of 911 call centers (PSAPs) and E911 location accuracy. Chief Poarch sees forums as important because they help to expand the dialogue on issues, establish a written record and provide input for staff policy development/recommendations, which is used to form FCC rulemaking.

Chief Poarch reflected on 800 MHz and rebanding and was very direct, "It is not productive to place blame but more important to focus on getting the process moving. The rebanding process is complex and by its very nature created deadlock. All involved bear some responsibility." While Chief Poarch notes much progress, he remains focused on streamlining the process, assigning responsibility and getting back on track.

On the topic of 700 MHz, Chief Poarch expressed his hopes, "That we use the 700 MHz beyond voice and that while voice is the baseline, we would be remiss if the focus is only on voice." Because the public safety broadband spectrum is licensed to a single entity, the Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL), he believes that it is our best opportunity for a truly interoperable broadband network on a nationwide basis.

On 700 MHz, Chief Poarch envisions that access to both public safety and commercial spectrum will provide communications capacity to address the needs of public safety during times of crisis. The fact that the network will be built to public safety specifications will address reliability and support the evolution of state-of-the-art technologies. Public safety uses of the network can include a diversity of uses, including the transmission of voice, video or data over an advanced broadband communications network in times of emergency and on a day-to-day basis.

The development of the PSBL will be to administer access to the nationwide public safety broadband network by individual public safety entities. Great care was taken to specify criteria for the PSBL so that it is broadly representative of the public safety community. Accordingly, it is our expectation that the PSBL will be well-positioned to work with individual public safety entities to both promote and enable use of the network.

On Nov. 19, 2007, the FCC announced the selection of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation (PSST) to oversee the creation of a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety as the PSBL. The PSST is a non-profit entity established by national public safety leadership. For more information, visit http://www.psst.org. The 700 MHz network will likely be a very attractive platform for public safety communications and offer real-time access to video, GIS applications and data.

The staff at the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau was in place when Chief Poarch arrived, but he said, "I would pick the exact same staff that I have today." The chief said that he could not be more impressed with the staff. "They come in early, stay late, they are dedicated, talented and they are all focused on 'doing the right thing.'"

I am convinced that Chief Poarch and staff understand the critical importance of their work and are prepared to address the issues with great care and urgency. Chief Poarch noted that the bureau will do everything possible to provide the tools to enable public safety to communicate effectively and serve the nation to the highest level possible.

CHARLES WERNER, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service and is fire chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, the SAFECOM Executive Committee and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board.

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