Not so long ago, disasters were a localized phenomenon. They had limited boundaries, and there was little investment in operational interactions or communications interoperability to support cross-government levels of response. That is no longer the case.
In the wake of catastrophes such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, emergency-response capabilities have been front and center for inspection, criticism and improvement. The term “capability” implies a technology-enabled mission function — technology serves the function. So, the first thing to do is to develop a functional component.
The American public expects its government, at every level — federal, state, county, tribal and local — to coordinate an effective disaster response. But most emergency-response planning typically has been localized; there have been few incentives for operational or technological compatibility.
Right now, three elements — a response framework, a common cross-modal protocol and a strategic-planning methodology — could, if wed, overcome hurdles that have hamstrung a unified government emergency-response network.
The federal government, through the Homeland Security Department, has detailed what is needed for a logical, coherent national response capability to catastrophic events. The recently published National Response Framework provides the road map and the mission imperatives that respective levels of government must navigate.
The NRF integrates government agencies at all levels, the private sector and nongovernment organizations. The approach is designed to work end to end (or top to bottom) to integrate capabilities starting at the local level up to the federal level when required. This is a sound approach, based on experience, that has the potential to solve a complex problem. If we can achieve logical and functional interoperability with disparate entities, we can create a clear path for enabling technology.
The Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium developed and demonstrated a Mobile Emergency Communications Interoperability (MECI) solution that could complement the NRF model. Based on a logical framework, MECI uses off-the-shelf components, configured with minimal effort, to integrate dissimilar technologies.
The unifying transport mechanism is Everything over Internet Protocol, which facilitates voice, data, video, e-mail, messaging and satellite reach-back. MECI capitalizes on groundwork done by the Naval Post-Graduate School to implement “fly-away kits” that response teams can quickly deploy for organic communication in an emergency. The demonstration shows that, with a sound framework and the will to execute, the protocol could effectively merge communication modes.
The NRF approach must find a common operational protocol to broker cooperation. Similarly, MECI uses a common protocol to broker interoperability across a broad range of technologies.
A Planning Approach
The framework’s utility will be measured by the results it delivers. One hurdle will be the cultural shift from short-term contingency planning to long-term deliberate planning. The Defense Department’s joint operations methodology is a proven process to assess threats, plan responses, determine organization and resources, equip forces and execute the mission. It offers experience-based techniques to integrate diverse capabilities at multiple levels.
A deliberate planning approach facilitates the use of technology — first, by leveraging existing assets, and second, by identifying when new systems are needed. That acquisition component complements the financial-planning scenario that is so critical to technology insertion and investment planning.
The policy and tools exist; all that’s needed is action.