Fast Facts

In an emergency, it's vital that first responders can communicate with their counterparts in other agencies and jurisdictions. The Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) offers a range of services and assistance to first responders to support interoperable communications systems and technologies.

First responders and other public safety officials we surveyed were generally satisfied with OEC’s work. However, some would like more information about OEC and its offerings.

We recommended that OEC ensure it is using the best communication tools to share information on training opportunities, workshops, and other emergency communications efforts.

Example of Emergency Communications Interoperability

Graphic showing how first responders use communications systems.

Graphic showing how first responders use communications systems.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) collaborate on grant guidance to help public-safety stakeholders use federal funds for interoperable emergency communications. GAO found that OEC's and FEMA's efforts generally align with GAO's leading practices for effective interagency collaboration. For example, OEC's and FEMA's memorandum of agreement and standard operating procedures articulate their agreement in formal documents, define their respective responsibilities, and include relevant participants. During this review, the agencies established a process to monitor and assess grantees' compliance with the grant guidance. However, because the grants for 2018 were not yet awarded at the time of GAO's review, GAO was unable to assess the effectiveness of the new process.

Hypothetical Example of Emergency Communications Interoperability

Hypothetical Example of Emergency Communications Interoperability

OEC incorporates the First Responder Network Authority's (FirstNet) nationwide public-safety broadband network and other emerging technologies into various offerings such as written guidance, governance planning, and technical assistance. Public-safety organizations GAO interviewed and statewide interoperability coordinators (SWIC) GAO surveyed were generally satisfied with OEC's communication efforts.

OEC has not assessed its methods for communicating with external stakeholders. According to federal internal control standards, management should externally communicate the necessary quality information to achieve the entity's objectives and periodically assess its methods of communication so that the organization has the appropriate tools to communicate quality information on a timely basis. Some SWIC survey respondents and public-safety representatives identified an opportunity for OEC to improve its methods of communication. For example, 26 of the 54 SWICs responded that OEC could use additional tools or approaches, such as social media, for improving communication with its stakeholders. In addition, public-safety officials reported that they have missed training because they were unaware of opportunities. Because OEC has not assessed its methods of communication, OEC may not be using the best tools and approaches to provide timely information on training opportunities, workshops, and other emergency communications information to the public-safety community.

Why GAO Did This Study

Public-safety communications systems are used by thousands of federal, state, and local jurisdictions. It is vital that first responders have communications systems that allow them to connect with their counterparts in other agencies and jurisdictions. OEC offers written guidance, governance planning, and technical assistance to help ensure public-safety entities have the necessary plans, resources, and training to support emergency communications. FirstNet, an independent authority within the Department of Commerce, is establishing a public-safety network.

GAO was asked to review OEC's efforts related to interoperable emergency communications. This report examines (1) OEC's and FEMA's collaborative efforts to develop grant guidance; (2) how OEC incorporates FirstNet's network and other emerging technologies into its plans and offerings; and (3) the extent to which OEC has assessed its methods of communication. GAO evaluated OEC's and FEMA's coordination against GAO's leading practices for interagency collaboration; surveyed all 54 state-designated SWICs; evaluated OEC's communications efforts against federal internal control standards; and interviewed officials that represented various areas of public safety.

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Recommendations

OEC should assess its methods of communication to help ensure it is using the appropriate tools in communicating with external stakeholders. DHS concurred with the recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Emergency Communications OEC should assess its methods of communication to help ensure it has the appropriate tools and approaches to communicate quality information to public-safety stakeholders, and as appropriate, make adjustments to its communications strategy. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
Public-safety communications systems are used by thousands of federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Within the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Emergency Communications Division (ECD) offers written guidance, governance planning, and technical assistance to help ensure public-safety entities have the necessary plans, resources, and training to support emergency communications. In 2018, we reported it is vital that first responders have communications systems that allow them to connect with their counterparts in other agencies and jurisdictions. For example, first responders use public-safety communications systems to gather information, coordinate a response, and request additional resources and assistance from neighboring jurisdictions and the federal government. However, although ECD had multiple efforts supporting interoperable emergency communications that the public-safety community relied on to better respond to emergency situations, absent an assessment of its methods of communication, ECD could not ensure it was using the best methods to provide relevant and timely information to the public-safety community. According to federal internal control standards, management should periodically assess its methods of communication so that the organization has the appropriate tools to communicate quality information on a timely basis. Lacking an assessment of its methods of communication, ECD may be missing opportunities to learn which tools and approaches are the most effective and to use those to deliver timely information to public-safety stakeholders. This can result in public-safety officials missing trainings or not receiving other helpful information. Therefore, we recommended that ECD should assess its methods of communication to help ensure it has the appropriate tools and approaches to communicate quality information to public-safety stakeholders, and as appropriate, make adjustments to its communications strategy. In 2020, we confirmed that ECD reviewed and made changes to its methods of communication, which included, among other things, an enhanced social media presence and additional communications to public-safety stakeholders about training opportunities. For example, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in collaboration with ECD, developed a social media strategy and tool kit to improve communications to public-safety stakeholders and to ensure it is reaching the widest audience. Improvements to its communications strategy will help ECD provide relevant and timely information on training opportunities, workshops, technical assistance offerings, and other emergency-communications information to the public-safety community.

Full Report

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