WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff sees responders of the future carrying PDAs to communicate as well as send data and video to an integrated headquarters.
The former Bush Administration official and co-founder the D.C.-based Chertoff Group -- a consulting company that focuses on communications -- spoke at the National Press Club earlier today (Sept. 3).
"We want the ability to transmit a broader type of data," he said noting that while the country is not ready to arm its first responders with iPhones or BlackBerrys quite yet, advances are being made in the way they communicate.
Over the past couple of years, over one billion dollars have been distributed to states and localities for purposes of promoting interoperable communications, according to Chertoff.
Later this year, the Science and Technology Directorate of DHS will enter the final phase of its multi-band radio program. Fourteen agencies from across the U.S. will take part in the pilot program for a minimum of 30 days.
"That radio -- if it passes the test -- will enable emergency responders to communicate with partner agencies regardless of radio band," he said.
He talked about the advances in the D.C.-area, pointing out that the counties surrounding the nation's capital can communicate with each other.
"When we went ahead with the planning for the 2009 inauguration, one of the things we could count on was the ability to have communication between the various counties that were going to be affected."
Chertoff said that while part of reaching interoperability -- as D.C. has -- is having the ability to use the same frequency or cross frequency, a big part of it isn't technological.
He said governance is a critical element in attaining interoperability.
"All of the groups need to have agreements on things like what language is going to be used. Some agencies use '10 code,' while some use plain English. Even within those types of codes there are variations," he said. "If you don't have an agreement on the language, it is impossible to have interoperable communications."
He also stressed the importance of training.
"There are still too many responders who, if they had access to the equipment, they wouldn't know how to use it," he said. "It's great to have the equipment, but if you haven't trained the responders in how to use it and how to deploy it, then they are not going to find it of much use in the event itself."
Chertoff noted that regardless of the advances in technology and the focus by jurisdictions on governance, it all comes down to whether or not an agency can afford to be interoperable.
With the availability of government grants, "there is money out there but the key is to spend it wisely."
He suggested that in the future, agencies may be paying for services instead of buying the equipment outright. He raised the possibility of leasing the devices and compared it to cell phone companies that sell their handsets at a lower rate when someone signs up for their service.
"We all understand budgetary constraints," he said, noting most agencies have already spent a lot of money on communications. "You can't just scrap everything and go with something new."