Emergency Communications:

Overlap and Views on the Effectiveness of Organizations Promoting the Interoperability of Equipment

GAO-18-173R: Published: Oct 30, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 30, 2017.

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Mark L. Goldstein
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goldsteinm@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

There is some overlap in the missions of the Department of Homeland Security's (Homeland Security) SAFECOM, Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (ECPC), National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators (NCSWIC), and the Department of Commerce's (Commerce) Public Safety Advisory Council (PSAC) because all of the organizations promote interoperable emergency communications. However, each organization has a specific focus and role. There is also overlap in membership, especially between SAFECOM and PSAC. However, we found that the organizations are complementary and not duplicative and that the overlap in mission among the organizations appears to have positive effects.

Most stakeholders told GAO that SAFECOM, ECPC, NCSWIC, and PSAC operate and collaborate effectively. For example, stakeholders said SAFECOM, along with NCSWIC in some cases, has developed effective written products that promote the interoperability of emergency communications. However, three stakeholders--representing tribal, county, or municipal interests--of the 11 GAO interviewed, told us that they believed that the views of tribal, county, or municipal organizations were not fully represented on SAFECOM and PSAC. SAFECOM, an organization with over 50 members, and PSAC, with 43 members, have two associations that exclusively represent counties, two organizations that exclusively represent cities, and one that exclusively represents tribal interests. This representation is lower than the representation of federal, state, police, and emergency-medical-service organizations. A leading collaboration practice is ensuring that all of the relevant participants have been included in the collaborative effort or mechanism. Five of 11 stakeholders did not identify this as an issue. Three stakeholders asked about this issue did not respond. Without greater inclusion of these stakeholders, there is the risk that their concerns and views are not being incorporated into the efforts of SAFECOM and PSAC to improve the interoperability of emergency communications. There is also the risk that their information needs are not being met by the information coming from SAFECOM and PSAC, possibly affecting their ability to make sound decisions regarding budgeting for and purchasing emergency communications equipment. 

Why GAO Did This Study

Public safety communications systems are used by thousands of federal, state, and local jurisdictions, all of which have first responders--such as police officers and firefighters--who respond to various types of emergencies. During the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the lack of interoperable public safety communications hampered rescue efforts and the overall effectiveness of public safety operations. More recently, interoperability issues arose during the Navy Yard attacks in 2013.

GAO focused on the efforts of federally supported organizations that promote the interoperability of emergency communications. GAO focused its review on the four main organizations supported by Homeland Security's Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) and Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration that promote interoperable emergency communications: SAFECOM, ECPC, NCSWIC, and PSAC. This report discusses (1) the missions and memberships of organizations that promote the interoperability of emergency communications, and to what extent, if at all, they are overlapping or duplicative, and (2) selected stakeholders' views on the effectiveness of the efforts of these organizations. GAO assessed (1) the missions and memberships of the organizations against criteria developed in GAO's Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication: An Evaluation and Management Guide; (2) interviewed agency officials and selected organization members about how these organizations were collaborating and operating; and (3) compared these stakeholders' responses to relevant practices from GAO's leading practices on collaboration. Members were selected from organizations that had overlapping membership in SAFECOM and PSAC.

What GAO Recommends

We are making two recommendations, one to DHS and one to FirstNet:

  • The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct that OEC examine the composition and functioning of SAFECOM to determine whether all relevant stakeholder groups are adequately represented and their views adequately expressed and considered through memberships in the organizations, executive committees, subcommittees, working groups, or other means. (Recommendation 1)
  •  FirstNet should examine the composition and functioning of PSAC to determine whether all relevant stakeholder groups are adequately represented and their views adequately expressed and considered through memberships in the organizations, executive committees, subcommittees, working groups, or other means. (Recommendation 2)
For more information, contact Mark Goldstein at  (202) 512-2834 or goldsteinm@gao.gov.
 

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2017, in GAO-18-173R, we reported that the the views of tribal, county, and municipal organizations were not fully represented on SAFECOM. SAFECOM, an organization with over 50 members, has two associations that exclusively represent counties, two organizations that exclusively represent cities, and one that exclusively represents tribal interests. This representation is lower than the representation of federal, state, police, and emergency-medical-service organizations. A leading collaboration practice is ensuring that all of the relevant participants have been fully included in the collaborative effort or mechanism. In addition, three stakeholders-representing tribal, county, or municipal interests-of the 11 we interviewed, told us that they believed the views of tribal, county, or municipal organizations were not fully represented on SAFECOM. We recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct that the Office of Emergency Communications examine the composition and functioning of SAFECOM to determine whether all relevant stakeholder groups are adequately represented and their views adequately expressed and considered through memberships in the organizations, executive committees, subcommittees, working groups, or other means. GAO's leading practices for stakeholder collaboration state that it is important to ensure that relevant participants have been included in the collaborative effort. Without full inclusion of these stakeholders, there is the risk that their concerns and views are not being incorporated into the efforts of SAFECOM to improve the interoperability of emergency communications. In addition, there is the risk that their information needs are not being met by the information coming from SAFECOM, possibly affecting their ability to make sound decisions regarding budgeting for and purchasing emergency communications equipment. In September 2019, SAFECOM provided documentation that shows it will assess its membership through a survey of the program's expertise and representation annually using the SAFECOM Membership Questionnaire-a tool developed and administered by the SAFECOM Education and Outreach Committee and reassessed for relevance every 2-3 years. To determine gaps, the SAFECOM Governance Committee will determine the expertise required of representing public safety communications and then analyze the survey data against those requirements on an annual basis. Finally, to fulfill the missing reporting mechanism, the Governance Committee will include steps taken to resolve gaps in the SAFECOM Annual Report, which include looking externally for new members and explaining its process for achieving community representation. In addition, Membership Working Group members will conduct an audit of current SAFECOM membership to identify gaps in membership. These changes to the SAFECOM membership process should better ensure that all stakeholder groups are adequately represented and their views adequately expressed and considered on SAFECOM.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct that OEC examine the composition and functioning of SAFECOM to determine whether all relevant stakeholder groups are adequately represented and their views adequately expressed and considered through memberships in the organizations, executive committees, subcommittees, working groups, or other means. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) established the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) to (1) provide advice to FirstNet and (2) promote the interoperability of emergency communications. PSAC consists of over 40 members from all disciplines of public safety; national organizations; federal, state, local, and tribal governments; and public safety at-large representation. In 2017, GAO reported that some stakeholders may be under-represented on the PSAC. While most stakeholders that provided an opinion on this issue told GAO that stakeholder representation on PSAC is appropriate, three stakeholders (the National Congress of American Indians, the National Association of Counties, and the National League of Cities) told GAO that county, city, and tribal perspectives could be better represented. GAO's leading practices for stakeholder collaboration state that it is important to ensure that the relevant participants have been included in the collaborative effort. Without full inclusion of these stakeholders, there is the risk that their concerns and views are not being incorporated into the efforts of PSAC to improve the interoperability of emergency communications. As a result, GAO recommended that FirstNet should examine the composition and functioning of PSAC to determine whether all relevant stakeholder groups are adequately represented and their views adequately expressed and considered through memberships in the organizations, executive committees, subcommittees, working groups, or other means. In 2019, GAO confirmed that FirstNet had taken sufficient actions to implement this recommendation. Specifically, after discussions and consideration of the input received from the PSAC Executive Committee, FirstNet leadership and staff determined that the PSAC membership as currently constituted was the correct size and inclusive of all public safety disciplines and potential user groups of the FirstNet network. In addition, PSAC and FirstNet leadership examined Tribal Working Group (TWG) membership, which the PSAC established to advise FirstNet on inclusive consultation strategies and tribal outreach. TWG delegates agreed that additional representation was needed from the Midwest. Ultimately, after considering several tribal organizations, TWG added the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council (GLITC), as a mid-western representative. With full inclusion of these stakeholders, there is greater confidence that their perspectives are being incorporated into the efforts of PSAC to improve the interoperability of emergency communications. FirstNet's actions also minimizes the risk that stakeholder information needs are not being met by the information coming from PSAC, possibly affecting their ability to make sound decisions regarding budgeting for and purchasing emergency communications equipment.

    Recommendation: FirstNet should examine the composition and functioning of PSAC to determine whether all relevant stakeholder groups are adequately represented and their views adequately expressed and considered through memberships in the organizations, executive committees, subcommittees, working groups, or other means. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration: First Responder Network Authority

 

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