Safecom, OEC Adapt to Changing Landscape
By Chris Essid
Tuesday, July 14, 2015 | Comments

In March in my home state of Virginia, a prisoner under hospital care overpowered a private security guard, took the guard’s weapon and escaped into the community. The suspect was caught after a resident recognized him from a Twitter alert sent by the Fairfax County (Virginia) Police and reported the man’s location to authorities.

I was the statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC) for Virginia in 2006, the year Twitter launched. It was my job to think holistically about emergency communications in the state. It never occurred to me then that a social networking site would become a communications tool for law enforcement. So much has changed since 2006.

In my current role as deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office of Emergency Communications (OEC), I speak daily with public-safety personnel nationwide about the new tools and technologies that are entering into emergency communications and the great promise they hold to make communications more interoperable and effective. OEC is also hearing from that community about the support they need to navigate this new environment.

The needs of the public-safety community are at the heart of every effort and initiative at OEC. One of the office’s closest links to that community is through Safecom, a stakeholder-driven public-safety effort created after the 9/11 terror attacks to work with first responders to improve public-safety communications interoperability.

Safecom was formed before DHS was established, and the group was instrumental in the creation of OEC. OEC and Safecom have partnered since the beginning to improve emergency communications for public safety and first responders. Safecom has been instrumental in the development of many of the best practices OEC has championed and helped spread across the nation. The first statewide communications interoperability plan (SCIP), the first SWIC and the idea for the national emergency communications plan (NECP) all originated with Safecom.

Those initial concepts and documents, however, were all focused on LMR systems used by the traditional public-safety disciplines of police, fire and EMS. While LMR is still the linchpin of emergency communications, the public-safety community needs to incorporate new IP-based technologies, bring in a broader stakeholder base and adapt to the new realities of an evolving emergency communications landscape.

In the updated NECP released in 2014, OEC stressed the need to think about and plan for communications in a more comprehensive way — across the entire emergency communications ecosystem. The ecosystem is a way of illustrating the many interrelated components, platforms and functions that are now involved in emergency communications. Adapting to this new environment is our next big challenge, and both OEC and Safecom are working to address it, beginning with those involved in the effort.

As an organization guided by those in the field, Safecom continually assesses its membership to ensure it reflects every part of the emergency communications ecosystem. Along with the traditional public-safety associations, Safecom’s membership includes the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), which brings expertise on alerts and warnings; members from the National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators (NASNA) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), who bring attention to the needs of 9-1-1 and the considerations involved in the transition to next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1); and the National Association of State Technology Directors (NASTD), whose members are often involved in broadband and mobile data efforts.

In 2013, Safecom also reorganized into four standing committees to focus on strategic priorities. Those committees are education and outreach, governance, funding and sustainment, and technology policy. The latter two committees partner with the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators (NCSWIC) to incorporate the expertise and perspectives of those working on these issues in every state and territory. Safecom also creates working groups to address any immediate needs and developing issues.

The education and outreach committee is working to disseminate best practices and lessons learned and coordinate with SWICs nationwide. The committee also provided input on the revamped Safecom website, which launched in February. The funding and sustainment committee issues its annual Safecom grant guidance and helps explore mutually beneficial public-private partnerships.

The technology policy committee is looking at specific systems, such as broadband, LMR, 9-1-1 and NG 9-1-1 and cybersecurity, and has divided into working groups to focus on each of these key areas of modern communications. The governance committee has oversight of Safecom’s membership, conducts strategic planning and develops criteria for state governing bodies, as well as looks at one of our most pressing needs — updating governance structures.

Safecom and OEC were at the forefront of early efforts to create communications interoperability plans in each state and territory and highlight the ways jurisdictions could effectively structure governing bodies. Those plans and governance structures were a crucial part of the progress we have made during the past 10 years. But the core elements of many of those plans are now dated. The governance structures that made us successful in 2005 and 2008 are not going to make us successful in 2015 and 2018. We need to look at them carefully and adapt them to the evolving emergency communications environment. Simply put, we need to have the right people around the table to stay effective.

To that end, OEC is working with members from Safecom and NCSWIC to update a governance guide that was first released in 2008. The 2015 Emergency Communications Governance Guide for State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Officials will provide recommendations and best practices for emergency communications officials to establish, implement, assess and update governance structures that fully represent the emergency communications ecosystem, including LMR, broadband, 9-1-1, NG 9-1-1, and alerts and warnings. To create the guide, OEC and its advising stakeholders examined 21 jurisdictions, including states, regions and cities, to understand how their governance structures function.

The goal of the guide is to identify and analyze model governance structures and associated best practices for achieving more inclusive, collaborative and high-functioning governance bodies. Look for it this summer or email safecomgovernance@hq.dhs.gov to get involved in the development process.

Through input from Safecom and other stakeholder groups, OEC is also evaluating its programs and services to ensure they are meeting current needs. We are looking at everything from how we conduct SCIP workshops to assessing whether our technical assistance offerings are on target and ensuring our priority telecommunications services are effectively supporting the response community.

While technologies such as Twitter have become an extremely helpful tool to public safety and law enforcement, technology is only one part of the solution. Safecom established the Interoperability Continuum, which stresses the need to invest in governance, standard operating procedures, and training and exercises — the coordination activities that make technologies successful. Safecom has driven that concept since I was a member and continues to do so. As the environment in which we operate continues to evolve, Safecom and OEC are committed to ensuring that the nation’s public-safety personnel continue to have reliable access to mission-critical communications capabilities.


Chris Essid is deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) and the former statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC) of the commonwealth of Virginia. For more information on Safecom, visit www.dhs.gov/safecom. For more on OEC’s programs and services, including access to the governance guide when it is published, visit www.dhs.gov/about-office-emergency-communications.

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