Picking up where Day One of DHS’ Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) first National Conference left off the organizers continued their efforts on Day Two (April 23, 2009) to keep momentum going. By continuing to utilize their “open mic” style and taking questions from a texting audience the push for using Twitter was made in earnest. It was surmised by the organizers that this was probably a first for DHS to utilize Twitter at one of their sponsored conference programs. The words “progressive” and “cutting-edge” are not the first ones that come to mind when you think of DHS, but the OEC Team took a leap of faith by trying to be forward leaning in connecting those outside of the confines of the Chicago Hilton to the day’s activities.
Most of the second day program was spent with concurrent breakout sessions occurring. This allowed the attendees to hear from their counterparts around the country on everything from the Value of Statewide Governance; Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) Grants; Statewide Communications Interoperability Plans (SCIPs) and more. I’m sure to many people these topics are probably about as exciting as getting front row seats to observe a paint drying marathon, but each of the selected topics addressed core essentials to the planning, execution and funding associated with connecting first responders and more to emergencies and wide scale events.
I had the chance to attend several of the panels and rather than give a blow by blow report on what each one covered I thought I’d offer a summary of some of the “quotable quotes” that some of the speakers offered. These included:
“Persistence pays off in collaboration”
“This is not rocket science. You have to bring people to the table if you want to succeed.”
“Remember the simple rule of KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid!”
“You have to get to know who is doing what if you expect your plan to work!”
“Your plans must be stakeholder driven.”
“You can’t say you’re a regional effort if you are the only one saying what you need.”
“You need to be able to express your vision and mission simply and succinctly. Geek speak won’t do.”
“I’m not a beeps and squeaks kind of guy.”
Juliette Kayyem, DHS’ new Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental Programs and Ross Ashley, FEMA’s Assistant Administrator for Grant Program attended and offered their respective views from Washington – both cognizant that the real work of the homeland occurs outside the Beltway.
Kayyem opened her remarks recounting her tenure as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Undersecretary for Homeland Security. With 351 independent municipalities scattered around the State, the challenge of getting buy-in from all of them into a uniform statewide communications plan was a challenge. While it is still a work in progress, the communications plan that was being put into place had put Massachusetts in a greatly improved posture from where it had once been.
While her remarks were devoid of significant details about policy and programmatic changes that would occur under Sec. Napolitano’s leadership, she did seem to make efforts to distinguish what would be different about DHS from its previous leadership. A couple of lines from her remarks that caught my attention included:
“The Department [DHS] needs to recognize that ‘homeland’ is in its title.” [This seemed to infer that the previous leadership of DHS believed in solely a top down approach to state, local and tribal governments.]
“Having a Governor [former AZ Gov. and now DHS Sec., Napolitano] running the Department helps in recasting how DHS engages its partners.”
[The new DHS leadership] “will be looking to correct policies and programs that the previous leadership put into place.” [This comment really caught my attention, especially after reading the CNN story Thursday morning about Sec. Napolitano’s remarks about wanting to repeal REAL-ID. In a speech earlier this week, Sec. Napolitano stated that she wants to repeal legislation that her Department is assigned direct responsibility for implementing. Such a bold move certainly demonstrates that it hasn’t taken the new DHS leadership long to identify one of the policies or programs it wants “to correct.”]
“The narrative for interoperability needs work.”
“You need to be able to tell a story; a narrative about what you do, what you buy and tell us what difference it makes.”
“We need to make some final calls on governance on interoperability and we need to get it right.”
Immediately following her remarks, Ross Ashley presented an overview of the grant programs that state, local and tribal sector members can use to pay for equipment, training, personnel and more. Remarking that communications interoperability “is probably the number one investment of grant dollars” that DHS has provided for he noted the transition that had occurred under Sec. Napolitano taking the reigns of the Department.
Echoing a point made by Assistant Secretary Kayyem about having a Governor leading DHS now and the importance of connecting to state and local government, he described the shift from Chertoff to Napolitano as a “huge effort” to reengage state and local constituents and build effective partnerships with them.
Another point he mentioned that echoed the previous days remarks by OEC Director, Chris Essid as well as Juliette Kayyem’s was “technology is no longer an excuse for being interoperable.”
“The number one excuse [for not being interoperable] is governance and people.”
“There’s lots of money; we’re buying lots of stuff but we’re not investing in the planning and protocols to bring them all together. That’s where we should be spending money.”
Ashley also encouraged the attending state, local and tribal leaders to build relationships with their respective State Administrative Agents (SAA) as they are the persons who ultimately hold the purse strings for the grant dollars that each state are awarded.
Before opening the floor to questions from the audience, Ashley looked to address an issue before it could be asked about and that was the timing of grant guidance materials. He explained the challenges that he and his grants team have to deal with as it pertains to issuing grant guidance. He is prevented from issuing any type of guidance on a normal cycle because they don’t know when they will be getting their annual appropriation. Until those dollars are signed into law, he can’t do anything. Once signed though he has twenty-five days to get the materials out the door.
After Ashley’s remarks, another round of breakout sessions occurred that again tried to expose the attendees to various grant programs and planning efforts underway around the US.
All-in-all the two-days in Chicago have been very rewarding and time well spent.
If I have any disappointment whatsoever it is that I did not hear the words “satellite” or “back-up systems” mentioned except in the one on one discussions I had with other attendees. (Granted I was not in all of the breakout sessions and unfortunately missed the plenary panel on Federal Partners Advancing Emergency Communications in Disaster Response because of a meeting I had where those words could have been discussed.) When you consider our nation’s disaster experiences (large and small), be it an act of terror or wrath of Mother Nature, those events have destroyed or severely compromised terrestrial systems and architectures making communications either non-existent or extremely limited when it needed be functioning at full capacity.
Whether it is preconceived attitudes or prejudice against satellite communications due to its perceived costs, complexities or its limitations, or just plain timing issues from putting it on the program agenda, satellite communications is the one communications tool that has been there and performed on our country’s disaster days. Costs, complexities, performance and availability have all improved dramatically in satellite communications from what they were ten-years ago but that message was not delivered here.
I would hope that as future conferences by OEC and others are planned there will be an opportunity to highlight the achievements these technologies and its providers have offered over the past several years. They have made a tremendous difference and those contributions should be highlighted alongside the other communications providers that serve our communities around the US.
Other than that complaint, OEC made the trip to Chicago a very informative and productive occasion. They should be commended for bringing America’s emergency communicators together to talk and listen to one another. This conference was indeed a first of its type and OEC has now raised the expectation to keep the conversation and engagement going.
We will all be better off as they do that going forward.