The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published a study on communication across regional boundaries during emergencies, which reviews the implementation of the Post-Katrina Act's provisions related to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

GAO recommends that FEMA should work with regional working-group members to reach consensus and implement an ongoing mechanism, such as a national-level working group, to encourage nationwide collaboration across regions. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation.

The report covers the work of the US’s regional emergency communications coordination working groups (RECCWGs). For example, on the technical side, it notes that that the Region V RECCWG has connected disparate statewide radio systems in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, while the Region VIII group, which includes Montana and North Dakota is working to develop solutions enhance interoperability among states in the region and with Canada.

GAO reports that leaders from all 10 of the RECCWGs said that funding was currently a challenge to emergency communications in their region, with half citing limited funding to upgrade or replace equipment as a challenge in their region. A leader in one region that identified funding as a major challenge, said that many of the entities within their region need funding for this purpose and they noted that efforts to find alternative funding sources have not been successful and that as emergency communications technology evolves, it will grow increasingly difficult for first responders to keep pace with the changes. Another RECCWG leader said that one state in its region had differed maintenance of its communications infrastructure due to consistent budget shortfalls.

Representatives from one public safety organisation said that the expense of new radios and software might cause some jurisdictions, particularly those in less populated areas to purchase less costly equipment that is not interoperable.

FEMA officials have told GAO that they are working to build scenarios into exercises that will help to test communications (in the context of emergency response), while three stakeholders told the office that during large-scale events there is still too often an assumption that emergency communications will remain operational in the event of an emergency.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Author: Sam Fenwick