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There is a biting irony to an Appropriations Hearing on Interoperability that no one can listen to.

Today, three senior DHS leaders, Dr. David Boyd of the Science & Technology Directorate; Chris Essid of the Office of Emergency Communications; and Ross Ashley of FEMA’s Grants Office went before the US House of Representative’s Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee to testify about the state of the nation’s interoperability.

If you went to watch the hearing via Webcast as I did, you found the sound as well as the accompanying video feed to be, shall we say, … “un- interoperable” for significant portions of the hearing.  As frustrating as this was in trying to cover the witness testimony and the Q&A with Members, the irony that a hearing on communications interoperability was barely visible or audible for significant portions of its deliberations was not lost on me.  It would seem that it’s not just DHS or first-responders that have an issue in communications reliability or equipment problems…

As for the hearing itself, it’s a safe bet that whenever there is a homeland security related issue hearing in the House or Senate, whether it be full Committee or one of the numerous Subcommittees, the word “interoperability” will be used at least once.  What the word “interoperability” means has even become a source for debate.  DHS Sec. Napolitano stated in her January confirmation hearing and her recent testimony before the House Homeland Committee that she wants the Department to re-examine what interoperability means and who should be talking to who and when.  Paraphrasing her words, “Not everybody needs to be talking to one another at the same time.” It was a theme echoed by several of the Subcommittee’s Members during today’s hearing as well.

In their oral testimony, all three of the DHS witnesses went talked at length about their respective offices’ performance to date offering a range of metrics and statistics to support their testimony.  Probably the most impressive of the shared statistics was offered by Mr. Ashley when he explained that of all of the expenditures that DHS’ grant dollars have funded to date, the overwhelming majority of the dollars spent have gone into communications interoperability.

That spending fact and the number of years this issue has been wrestled with was not lost on Members of the Subcommittee who peppered the witnesses with a number of questions that boil down to the following:

•    Why aren’t we making faster progress?
•    What’s the delay?
•    Why haven’t we fixed this situation?
•    Why aren’t we learning our lessons after each incident?
•    Who’s in charge?

Regardless of the facts, answers or demonstrable metrics the DHS witnesses offered, the frustration of the Members on this issue remains significant.  Probably best capturing these sentiments were the words of Ranking Member, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), “What the hell are we doing?” and “I have an old saying, ‘Plan your work and work your plan,’ but no one seems to be working the plan.”

For all of their valiant efforts, Boyd, Essid and Ashley still found themselves in the traditional position of being the wide receivers corps for the javelin throwers catching a number of pointed questions that wanted to know why their community was not getting certain dollars; why certain solutions developed in their districts were not being actively promoted by the DHS; why communications certain states/districts/rural areas had not been fixed, and so forth.

They even had to dance around the loaded question posed by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) who in an effort to get the DHS witnesses to endorse her efforts (and soon to be introduced legislation) to consolidate the Department’s interoperability functions into one office.  It was her belief that the present location of the Office of Emergency Communications with the Cyber Division of the National Protection and Plans Directorate (NPPD) prevented the issue from getting the visibility, attention and resources it needed to be effective.

While the hearing was not overtly acrimonious or nasty (except for my four-letter words in dealing with the hearing’s webcast’s “interoperability”), it was obvious that patience is very thin on this subject.  That is more than understandable when over $100 billion has been invested in interoperability (a figure Dr. Boyd offered in his testimony) yet the communications challenges continue to persist.

While patience may be thin, it’s a safe bet that a lot more money is going to be spent on this issue with the forthcoming Appropriations bill.  It’s probably an even safer bet that the same questions and probably many of the same answers will be repeated next year as well.

Who knows, maybe next year will be different?  Maybe the Committee’s Webcast will be fully interoperable the next year when they gather to talk about this issue so everyone can hear it.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More