GAO Examines New Federal Emergency Communications Center (3/3/10)
Wednesday, March 03, 2010 | Comments

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examined the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (ECPC), enacted in the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. The same act established the DHS Office of Emergency Communications (OEC).

Congressional appropriators, citing concerns about the progress in implementing interoperability among federal agencies and the amount of time it was taking to establish ECPC, directed GAO to evaluate the progress made in establishing ECPC and to identify any obstacles to federal agency coordination through ECPC.

ECPC is an interagency body intended to serve as the focal point and clearinghouse for intergovernmental emergency communications information sharing, and is required to submit to Congress an annual strategic assessment on federal coordination to advance emergency communications.

ECPC, administered by OEC, is composed of five statutorily mandated members — DHS, the FCC, and the departments of Commerce, Defense and Justice — and seven additional departments and agencies invited to participate as members. The 12 members play key roles in emergency communications efforts.

GAO staff conducted research from November 2009 through February 2010 to gain insights into the status of ECPC. The charter was established during summer 2009, and the first executive committee meeting was Oct. 21, 2009. The Post-Katrina Act did not provide a deadline for ECPC to commence operations.

ECPC efforts include working to refine its mission, identifying short- and long-term action items, and implementing tasks associated with ECPC-related milestones in the NECP. The GAO report said that OEC and ECPC officials who were interviewed reported that ECPC faces interagency coordination challenges in obtaining agreement among ECPC members on group decisions, gaining the acceptance of its stakeholders when promoting a strategy to achieve interoperable communications, providing and demonstrating value to its members, maturing as an interagency body, and working to define its relationships with other organizations with similar goals and objectives.

ECPC’s mission, in part, is to establish a clearinghouse to build a collection of emergency communications information. An initial version of the clearinghouse is housed within the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), which is DHS’ primary information technology system for sharing terrorism and related information with federal, state, and local agencies, among others. OEC officials stated that while OEC has a definition of emergency communications, ECPC has not yet agreed on one, noting that without a definition it will be difficult to determine what types of interoperability plans and other relevant information should be submitted to the clearinghouse. Preliminary discussions within the ECPC steering committee indicate a consensus that the scope of emergency communications must be defined broadly.

ECPC’s executive committee last year identified the following short-term action items:

    1) Coordinate member comments on the FCC’s national broadband plan (NBP).

    2) Identify legal and regulatory barriers to common acquisition approaches and advocate for the removal of such barriers.

    3) Submit grant coordination requirements for the President’s proposed fiscal-year 2011 budget.

    4) Refine ECPC’s objectives, goals and common definitions.

The center’s long-term action includes include:

    1) Coordinate federal emergency communications grants guidance.

    2) Consider developing methods to support identification of opportunities to share infrastructure and leverage resources.

    3) Provide federal input into existing national communications planning activities, including broadband planning and national emergency communications planning.

    4) Assess the timeliness of efforts to establish emergency communications standards and standards compliance to drive operability and interoperability improvements.

    5) Refine ECPC’s long-term strategic agenda, which should include a focus on coordinating grants guidance and identifying opportunities to share infrastructure.

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