Chief Warrant Officer Joe Kobsar was the man the joint task force called in to help restore downed civilian communication links in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the technical director of the Army's Northeast Regional Response Center at Fort Dix, N.J., he had a solution on hand: an incorporated deployable cellular system designed to fit in the back of a Humvee. Two soldiers could set it up and have it operating in a little over 20 minutes.
Within a few days of receiving the call, Kobsar's teams had eight units up and running in eight spots all over Louisiana, including on top of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in beleaguered downtown New Orleans.
"This was the first time we ever crossed borders," Kobsar said referring to a military team that assisted civilian agencies communicate in a disaster.
When it comes to interoperable communications systems - between the military and civilian agencies, between jurisdictions and between federal agencies - there are many borders to cross. Experts say it will be years before the holy grail of communications interoperability will be reached. But efforts are underway.
Hurricane Katrina - a disaster covering thousands of square miles and involving the military, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Coast Guard, and scores of local police, fire and rescue units - further underscored the necessity of interoperability.
The Defense Department provided several ad hoc solutions to solve communication problems. The cellular system Kobsar deployed under a material assistance request from Louisiana had been in use less than a year and was untested in such a real-world situation.
The unit is designed for ease of use, according to Bill Clingempeel, the director of business development for government technologies at Qualcomm. "Chances are, when you're in that type of environment, you're not going to have a super-trained operator," said Clingempeel, who assisted Kobsar in Louisiana..
The system comes in three pieces, two weighing 160 pounds each, and a third containing a lightweight antenna that connects to a satellite. Once operational, it can link to mobile phones and emergency responder radio bands.
Qualcomm is one of several manufacturers hoping to fill the interoperable communications void in the military and domestic realms. Raytheon and L-3 Communications are among other companies that have similar systems.
What the new devices can't do is directly link a domestic communications system into the military's intranet. Legal and security barriers prevent that, Kobsar said. However, first responders and the Coast Guard were able to communicate with the military through radios and secure cell phones.
Before widespread interoperability not requiring such on-the-fly solutions can be achieved, individual agencies must be able to communicate within their own ranks, and that is not always the case, communication experts said. The military has struggled to link the four services for years. The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have a hodgepodge of wireless systems for each of their law enforcement agencies. Local police and fire departments in neighboring communities may not be able to talk to each other.
"As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, in the absence of a reliable network across which responders within an agency can effectively communicate, interoperability is neither possible nor relevant," David Boyd, director of DHS' office of interoperability and compatibility, told a House homeland security subcommittee hearing.
Boyd's office was charged in the wake of 9/11 with connecting wireless communication systems across federal, state, local, tribal and public safety agencies. It is, by all accounts, a daunting task.
DHS' answer to the problem of local agencies unable to communicate with each other is the SAFECOM initiative, a vision of a national "system-of-systems" that first responders can use anywhere in the country, using their own equipment, on any network, and using one dedicated public safety radio band, Boyd said. The office will conduct research and evaluation, pilot demonstrations, coordinate grants and establish outreach programs.
Progress has been made since 9/11, Boyd said. But much work needs to be done, not the least of which is creating interoperability standards. It was not until late 2004 that Congress gave DHS the legislative authority, previously spread out among three different agencies, to carry out the national plan.
The issue of an overcrowded radio spectrum cannot be ignored, Boyd added. Federal Communications Commission allocations for public safety frequencies are fragmented and spectrum is a finite resource. The completion of two reports on overhauling the spectrum was expected by the end of last year, one carried out by the SAFECOM program and a second compiled by DHS, the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A "spectrum needs plan" will emerge from the two efforts.
As the SAFECOM initiative progresses, the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Treasury are working on an integrated wireless network (IWN) system to allow their law enforcement officers to communicate with each other, but are several years away from making that happen.
Justice, meanwhile, is addressing the short-term needs areas to boost interoperability in major urban areas through a series of grants. Its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has awarded $242 million during the past three years to improve communication systems. Another $90 million has been disbursed to vendors and universities to develop solutions.
Justice and DHS have also partnered to create a "25 cities interoperability" program to link existing federal, state and local agency systems in major urban centers.
The infrastructure destruction witnessed by Kobsar and Clingempeel pointed to an emerging problem: the over reliance on commercial communications systems. Wind knocked down cellular towers and flooding took out landlines. Commercial and government systems dependent on electricity suppliers for power also failed.
Vance Hitch, chief information officer at the Department of Justice, told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce "when these core infrastructures fail or are overwhelmed - as was the case during Hurricane Katrina - the agency communication systems are badly degraded or fail."
Along with technical hurdles, there's also the human factor to take into account, experts told the committee.
Linton Wells, the Defense Department's former chief information officer, said if the military, federal agencies, local entities and disaster relief nonprofits don't work out communication plans ahead of time, the "results . can prolong or even exacerbate the effects of the disaster."
David Liebersbach, former president of the National Emergency Management Association, said all the hi-tech, interoperable communication systems industry and the government can muster will not solve any problems if the first responders don't know how to talk to each other.
"The problem lies with people not communicating before the disasters," he said. "Commonly, if people are not talking before the disaster, then they are rarely establishing relationships and communication during a disaster."
Wells agreed. "Exercises and training opportunities between the U.S. military and civilian responders are critical."