Interoperability is Key to Public Safety
WASHINGTON, DC – Although the 2006 hurricane season started June 1st, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here in Washington DC reported just three tropical storms over the past 8 weeks, and no hurricanes. We’re off to a sleepy start, and that’s a very good thing. On my desk sit about 12 linear inches of various government reports about what went wrong during last year’s horrific Hurricane Katrina, written by earnest federal officials in the hopes that we can learn from our past mistakes. These are useful documents, and I don’t mean to belittle their importance. But I worry that if we spend all of our time looking backwards, we won’t spot the next set of issues, or understand what solutions are at hand, or could be at hand, to resolve them. In my view, technology could have made things better in Katrina. Had the”right” technology been in place or ready to drop in when existing networks failed, it could have served to perpetuate”command and control” by local, state and federal officials. Technology could also have addressed the absence of interoperable networks among public safety, governmental agencies, non-profit relief agencies and the private sector. For the future, the ability to talk to each other, to ensure the flow of information both up and down a command structure, as well as”out” to the public, and the retention of command and control will depend upon our ability and willingness to call new technology into service.One of the core technologies we will need to call upon is IP. Let’s remember that it was the Internet that kept working during the World Trade Center crisis. In IP networks, communication is distributed and resilient. The IT manager for the City of New Orleans used his Vonage account and a (miraculously) working data line from a hotel to enable the Mayor to communicate with the outside world when New Orleans flooded. In IP services, the technology is standardized, inexpensive and easy to use. Non-profits such as the American Red Cross and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children turned to IP-based technology to ramp up their communications call capacity in the wake of Katrina. IP is scalable. Should a hurricane strike this year, new IP-based interoperability technologies are ready and could be placed at the service of public safety and emergency managers. IP is innovative. There is no doubt that IP is going to play a larger role in helping us through future catastrophes around the world. The only question is how fast we’ll grasp its capabilities and put them to work. Next week, I will be attending the annual meeting of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International in Orlando, Florida. I’ll be listening, and talking, about IP technologies in support of public safety. My hope is that this group is interested, at least in part, on looking at what’s ahead, instead of admiring the rear-view mirror.