WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who has been working for two years to improve information sharing among homeland security officials, plans to introduce legislation that would encourage federal, state, and local agencies to communicate more freely with one another.
A key part of the measure will be a grant program to provide state and local first responders with the technologically compatible equipment they need to respond effectively to a major disaster. The inability of the New York City police force to communicate with the fire department is widely believed to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of firefighters caught inside the World Trade Center.
The measure would also require the Department of Homeland Security to develop plans for an interagency task force to create an information-sharing network designed to link homeland security activities at the federal, state, and local levels. DHS also would be required to establish an office of interoperable communications to ensure coordination in developing and maintaining interoperable communications systems.
Lieberman commended Reps. Jim Turner, D-Texas, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., for introducing a similar bill in the House this week.
As the September 11th commission takes up emergency response issues as they played out in New York City two and a half years ago, Lieberman issued the following statement. Background on the Senator’s information-sharing proposal follows:
“Two and a half years after September 11th, we still do not have the kind of communications convergence among homeland security officials up, down, and across the line that we need to properly protect the people of this country from future terrorist attacks.
“Despite some gains made by the Department of Homeland Security, information sharing between federal, state, and local agencies lags far behind where it should be today.
“In particular, first responders of any given locality must have the interoperable communications equipment they need to execute an effective emergency response in the event of a terror attack, or for that matter any other type of disaster.
“The cultural, technological, and administrative barriers that now prevent the free flow of critical homeland security information through different levels of government – and among agencies at the same level – must come down so that our first responders and preventers can do the job we are depending upon them to do.”
LIEBERMAN’S INFORMATION SHARING PROPOSAL
Dedicated Funding: Achieving interoperability is expensive. Last year, a non-partisan task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations put the cost, conservatively, at $6.8 billion over five years. While several programs provide funds that can be used for interoperability initiatives, state and local budget crises coupled with the high overall costs and lack of reliable funding has prompted many localities to spend limited federal dollars elsewhere. Other critical needs, such as personnel, physical facilities, protective gear, and other kinds of equipment, reduce the available funding for mission-critical communications systems.
Solution: Lieberman’s bill would provide a dedicated and consistent funding source specifically earmarked and sufficient to finance comprehensive interoperability solutions, and would help clarify the role of federal, state, and local agencies. The bill would direct funding to local officials, and would be flexible enough to address all phrases of the information technology and communications systems life cycle: planning, system design and engineering, procurement and installation, operations and maintenance, testing, and technology development.
Leadership, Planning, and Coordination: Interoperability is now hampered by limited and fragmented planning, poor coordination and cooperation, and an outdated existing infrastructure. In response, the Bush Administration points to “Project SAFECOM,” the as-yet-unauthorized umbrella program within DHS working to coordinate various initiatives. However, last month, the General Accounting Office found that in its two-year history, the program has made “very little progress.” Specifically, GAO cited: (1) a lack of consistent executive commitment and support; and (2) an inadequate level of interagency collaboration.
Solution: Lieberman’s bill would establish a formal office within DHS to implement the goals of Project SAFECOM with the statutory authority, dedicated resources, and scope of operations necessary to coordinate federal programs, work with state and local officials across the country, develop a strategy with time tables, and accomplish a myriad of other tasks required to make achieving interoperability a national priority and a realistic goal.
Adequate Incentives: To succeed, any initiative to share homeland security information must overcome cultural, political, institutional, and where they exist, technical barriers. However, few identifiable incentives exist to promote information sharing; nor are there performance measures in place to adequately gauge how well specific employees and agencies are doing.
Solution: Lieberman’s bill would require that the federal government develop employee performance criteria to evaluate appropriate employees on how well they ensure that information is disseminated to others. The bill would also authorize an incentive/reward system to recognize those employees who show initiative in developing innovative systems to foster information sharing.
A Coordinated Network: As a 2002 Markle Foundation report found, changing the paradigm from hoarding to sharing information will require establishment of a decentralized network. Although numerous ad hoc initiatives are being established, our country still lacks plans for the kind of robust, coordinated network necessary to link all those who need to be linked.
Solution: Lieberman’s bill would require the DHS to work with other federal agencies, state and local officials, and the private sector to develop a strategic plan and architecture for the kind of network necessary to ensure that all those – police officers, fire fighters, doctors, emergency personnel, intelligence agencies, and others – who need homeland security information can access and put it to effective use. Fostering creation of what Markle calls the SHARE network must be a strategic priority for DHS – otherwise, there is no way that its mission can be accomplished.