Safecom: Addressing Public Safety Wireless Needs

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This month’s column features an exclusive interview I conducted with Dr. David G. Boyd, who is deputy director (operations) for the Office of Research and Development and director of the Safecom Program Office in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Safecom was established in 2002 to address the wireless communication needs of public safety organizations.

Boyd joined DHS just as it was being set up in March 2003. As deputy director (operations) for the Office of Research and Development, he is responsible for the operations of the office and for the management or oversight of the operations of all the Homeland Security Laboratories. As director of Safecom, he is responsible for the national effort to achieve interoperability among the communications systems of the nation’s first responders at local, state and federal levels.

Boyd came to Homeland Security from the U.S. Department of Justice, where he had served since 1992 as director of science and technology for the National Institute of Justice. In 1997, he was also appointed deputy director of the institute. He oversaw the operations of the largest law enforcement and corrections technology development activity in the United States. He also served on the White House National Science and Technology Council and the National Security Council Committee on Safety and Security of Public Facilities, and was executive chair of the Justice Department’s Technology Policy Council.

Boyd retired from the U.S. Army after more than 20 years to accept that appointment. He commanded combat, combat support and training units in the United States and overseas and has served on military staffs from battalion level to the Pentagon. He has held assignments in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he was responsible for the design and supervision of the development and application of automated models in support of the Chairman. His more than three dozen military awards include the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

He holds a career appointment in the Senior Executive Service, and is a graduate of the University of Illinois Champaign, Golden Gate University, the University of Illinois-Chicago and Walden University. He holds graduate degrees in operations research and public policy analysis and a doctorate in decision sciences, and is an adjunct professor of operations research and information technology at Capella University.

A quote from Secretary Tom Ridge at last year’s Congressional Fire Services Dinner: “Helping first responders stay safe and effective and alive is our department’s goal. Whether by analyzing the vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure, enhancing hospitals capacity to treat victims of bioterrorism, informing communities through our threat advisory system, or encouraging the next generation of homeland security products and technology. One of those is Project Safecom. This is our effort to ensure wireless interoperability so firefighters and other emergency responders can communicate with one another in any crisis.”

Firehouse: What is Safecom’s definition of “communications interoperability”?
Boyd: Communications interoperability is the ability of public safety practitioners to talk across disciplines and jurisdictions via radio communications systems, exchanging voice and/or data with one another on demand, in real time, when needed and when authorized.

Firehouse: Can you tell the fire service about Safecom, its mission and how firefighters can benefit from Safecom’s efforts?
Boyd: Safecom’s mission is to serve as the umbrella program within the federal government to help local, tribal, state and federal public safety agencies improve response through more effective and efficient interoperable wireless communications.

As a public safety practitioner-driven program, each of Safecom’s efforts and initiatives are directed at benefiting firefighters and the public safety community. One of the more obvious benefits for firefighters is the creation of a one-stop shop for all public safety communication needs. This one-stop shop will provide a resource in the form of a web portal, where individual practitioners can access information and direction on technical assistance, grant guidance and technical solutions.

For public safety agencies lacking Internet access, Safecom will also outreach to practitioners through printed publications with the same information. Additionally, demonstration projects to evaluate existing and emerging technologies and methodologies will allow Safecom to create models for interoperable communications and provide funding, technical assistance, guidance to various regions around the country. Even the more policy-focused activities such as the facilitation of standards development; supporting the research, development, testing and evaluation of communications technologies; and the coordination of public safety communications federal funding and federal programs ultimately serve the public safety community by ensuring the necessary resources and guidance are available for the achievement of communications interoperability.

Firehouse: How is Safecom structured to ensure input from public safety, states, localities and tribal organizations? How do you receive input from the public safety community?
Boyd: Members from the public safety community are actively involved in several facets of the Safecom program. Safecom has a governance structure in place that includes an Executive Committee (EC) and Advisory Committee (AC). Representatives from public safety, as well as localities, states and tribal organizations, continually comprise more than 50% of the Safecom EC to ensure Safecom remains a public safety practitioner-driven program. The remainder of the EC is comprised of representatives from other key federal offices that represent federal public safety practitioners. Safecom also relies on input from the public safety community through the AC to provide recommendations to the program for direction and guidance for existing and future efforts affecting the local and state public safety community.

Firehouse: Does Safecom play a role in grant guidance? If so, how?
Boyd: Safecom developed grant guidance for all grant programs that provide funding assistance for public safety communications to utilize in coordination with representatives of the public safety community. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the Department of Justice incorporated the grant guidance into their joint fiscal year 2003 solicitation for public safety communications equipment. The guidance encourages multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary approaches to solving interoperability issues.

Furthermore, the guidance required applicants to illustrate that they had considered the lifecycle of their communications system by addressing planning, building, upgrading, replacing, maintaining, training and managing phases of their public safety communications effort.

Safecom and the AGILE programs are also creating a grant clearinghouse database for practitioners to view existing grant awards and details, and for federal funding programs to collaborate during the grant evaluation and award process. The grant clearinghouse will decrease duplication of funding and evaluation efforts, maximize efficiency of limited funding, and track progress over time as to amounts of funding, award recipients and historical progress of interoperability goals.

Firehouse: How long has Safecom been in existence and when do you foresee the successes to be realized? What types of projects and/or initiatives are underway?
Boyd: The Safecom Program was established by the Office of Management Budget as one of the 24 E Government initiatives and approved by the President’s Management Council to address public safety communications issues. After being housed by Department of the Treasury and then FEMA, Safecom finally found a home within in the Science and Technology Directorate at DHS. When DHS was created, a number of programs began to move – not because they were failing where they were, but because programs were beginning to fall into the appropriate “bins” as DHS began to take form.

It was at this point, in the spring of 2003, that the word “Project” was even dropped from Safecom’s title, since it was obvious to DHS that the issues of public safety communications and interoperability couldn’t be resolved in one project. Rather, Safecom recognizes that before interoperability can occur, reliable, mission- critical, agency-specific communications capable of meeting day-to-day operational needs is a sine qua non. Safecom, accordingly, is addressing the intricately related issues of reliable day-to-day public safety communications as well as the more specialized issues related to communications interoperability.

Unlike many other E-gov initiatives, the solution to the problems of public safety communications and communications interoperability – short of a major overhaul of how spectrum is allocated and managed in this country – is not a single nor even a particular set of discrete tasks. There are no simple solutions. Instead, the identification and orchestration of many programs is required.

For Safecom to accomplish its mission, a systematic approach will be employed, and will include the following components:

  • Identify the problem, recognizing that it is a simple problem with many complex elements and no single solution.

  • Collaboration with the leadership of the public safety community to gather comprehensive communications requirements in order to develop appropriate approaches to solutions, referred to as work packages. (This is essential since 90% of the public safety infrastructure is owned by state and/or local public safety entities.)

  • Identify current initiatives addressing interoperable communications issues and develop a coordination strategy to leverage existing work, while decreasing unnecessary duplication of efforts.

  • Implement this strategy to develop short- and long term projects to address public safety communications and communications interoperability requirements.

By leveraging the knowledge and expertise of the public safety community, and by integrating other programs addressing this same issue, Safecom has already saved time and money in identifying the key issues, needs, and existing efforts.

The program has already realized progress in several of the near-term and long-term initiatives listed below.

Safecom’s Near-Term Initiatives:

  • Grant guidance
  • Statement of Requirements baseline
  • Demonstration projects
  • Support of spectrum policy and standards development

Safecom’s Long-Term Goals:

  • Provide policy recommendations
  • Develop a technical foundation for public safety communications interoperability
  • Coordinate funding assistance for public safety communications interoperability
  • Create a national training and technical assistance program

Many accomplishments have been made in terms of these initiatives. Safecom has:

  • Developed grant guidance for public safety interoperability equipment grants to local, tribal and state organizations adopted by FEMA and COPS

  • Chartered and held the first meeting of the Federal Interagency Coordination Council, an interagency working group for federal programs and offices working in the field of public safety communications

  • Integrated the Public Safety Wireless Network Program

  • Released the beta version of the Interoperable Communications Grant Clearinghouse database

  • Released a Request for Information for technology concepts and existing or underdevelopment products or services to provide for the interoperability of public safety communications

  • AGILE and Safecom released the first draft of the Statement of Requirements for public safety interoperability

And yet there is still much to be done. Over the next 18 to 24 months, Safecom is set to:

  • Fully integrate grant guidance across federal grant programs with interoperable communications funding

  • Develop and operate an interoperable communications center on the web that will allow public safety users to identify the best solutions for their jurisdiction

  • Develop and operate an Interoperable Communications Grant Clearinghouse on the web

  • Develop a common nomenclature for public safety communications

  • Develop and promote technical assistance publications that include common interoperability terminology for public safety and further addresses communications-related issues to improve the use of incident command systems

  • Develop fully interoperable demonstrations across the country and create interoperability models out of the successful demonstrations

  • Continue to support the development of standards that will enable multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary interoperability

  • Release a Broad Agency Announcement to identify innovative technologies to fund through demonstration projects

  • Finalize the Statement of Requirements for public safety interoperability

  • Develop a business case for the National Public Safety Communications Office

  • Create a baseline of communications interoperability for public safety

  • Participate in the White House Spectrum Policy Initiative Taskforce, which will make recommendations to the President representing local and state public safety spectrum needs

Firehouse: What is the relationship between Safecom and PSWN?
Boyd: As part of the federal government’s efforts to address public safety wireless communications interoperability in a more efficient way, the Safecom Program has integrated the resources of the Public Safety Wireless Network Program (PSWN), such that PSWN will no longer function as a separate program. Where appropriate, Safecom will continue initiatives begun under PSWN, and also continue to bolster the partnerships created therein. PSWN Executive Committee members will be included in the Safecom AC.

Firehouse: How can the fire service help Safecom accomplish its mission?
Boyd: As a practitioner-driven program, the participation and input from the fire service and other public safety representatives is essential to the success of Safecom and communications interoperability for public safety. Below are just a few things the fire service can do to further the mission of communications interoperability:

b. Keep Safecom informed of developing needs of the public safety community so that Safecom is better able to help meet them

c. Utilize the resources Safecom provides to help achieve interoperability in their area by providing their own success stories and making their own communications status known and available to other jurisdictions

d. Utilize the Safecom grant guidance

e. Pursue technical assistance

Firehouse: If fire service representatives wish to contact Safecom, how would they do so?
Boyd: Fire service representatives can contact Safecom by e-mail at www.safecom@dhs.gov or learn more about Safecom’s activities and initiatives at the website www.safecomprogram.gov.


Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor and the TechZone editor for Firehouse.com, is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and currently serves as the deputy fire chief for the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner also is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Communications Committee, chair of the IAFC Technology Advisory Group, technology chair/webmaster for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, communications coordinator for the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and webmaster for the National Incident Management System Consortium. In addition, he serves as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Interoperability Coordinator. His e-mail address is wernerc@charlottesville.org.

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