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9/11 Commission report card says interoperability and better coordination still needed

Thomas Kean

Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation has taken dramatic steps towards improving security to prevent more attacks, according to a report card issued on Aug. 31 by the 9/11 Commission chairmen, but some key components are still woefully behind.

The report card issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG), which is a follow-on to the 9/11 Commission, said dramatic improvements are needed in interoperability for emergency responder communications radio spectrum and gear. It said unified response to disasters has improved, but more effort is needed to coordinate efforts among agencies. It also said airport screening for explosives is another area that needs work.

The NSPG is co-chaired by Lee Hamilton, former representative from Indiana and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission and Thomas Kean, former Governor of New Jersey and chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

The report was not completely negative. It noted vast improvement in the level of overall cooperation within government since the attacks, as well as the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight screening the names of all airline passengers against “no fly” and “automatic selectee” terrorist watchlists before they board an airplane.

The report’s criticism, however, was focused on several areas that remain problematic. The lack of a unified national emergency responder wireless communications network was particularly nagging, it said. The report wholeheartedly supports immediate allocation of the 700 MHz D-block spectrum to public safety and the construction of a nationwide, interoperable broadband network. The group urged Congress to “act swiftly” on moving legislation forward that would make the spectrum available. In June, said the NSPG, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee voted report legislation to the full Senate that would allocate the spectrum, but the measure hasn’t passed the Senate and the House hasn’t yet considered similar legislation.

Even after such legislation is passed, the effort will require “heavy lifting” to deploy an operational nationwide interoperable network, said the group. Standards that insure interoperability among emergency responders have to be established, as well as developing wireless devices that can operate on the public safety network. Those devices will also have to work on other portions of the radio spectrum. “This interoperability is important so that a first responder’s public safety network device could also operate on a commercial wireless network if the public safety broadband network transmitter is disrupted, or a first responder moves into an area where the public safety broadband network transmitters have not been deployed, as is likely to be the case in many rural areas,” it said.

The group said the national network should leverage existing communications infrastructure already owned by the U.S. government to save money. It noted the Department of Justice’s Integrated Wireless Network or Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Tactical Communications System, and the radio towers that state and local governments have constructed or leased as possible options.  “For example, CBP’s radio towers provide an existing infrastructure base for communications in remote rural areas where there is no other existing communications infrastructure,” it said.

Coordination among military operations in the field have been “striking” since 9/11, but there is ample room for improvement on the domestic side among government agencies, said the report. “The degree of interagency collaboration in Afghanistan and Iraq is unprecedented,” it said. On the domestic side, however, “there has been less unity of effort and much slower progress among multiple agencies that are either new or have new counterterrorism missions.”

It noted that the level of cooperation among all levels of government is higher that it has ever been. It said there are 105 Joint Terrorism Task Forces throughout the nation, and 72 Fusion Centers in which federal, state, local authorities investigate terrorism leads and share information. “State and local officials have a far greater understanding not only of threats and how to respond to them, but also of their communities and those who may be at risk of radicalization,” it said.

However, the response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 showed improvements are still needed. It said the spill showed that response to disaster had improved, but it was flawed.

“The Coast Guard Commandant was placed in overall command of the incident, but state and local officials, responding to political pressures, at times focused their efforts on what they judged to be priorities for their constituents,” it said. “State and local authorities set up their own local command centers and were often at odds with the overall plan for strategic response and clean up, creating resource demands in conflict with the overarching program. The complexity of the problem highlights the difficulty of establishing strong central command and control, and integrating incident response across all levels of government,” it said.

In spite of the agency’s intensive efforts to introduce increasingly sophisticated detection capabilities at airport security checkpoints, the report noted that Transportation Security Administration’s efforts to detect explosives hidden inside a person’s body, lags. It also noted health concerns that have plagued advanced imaging x-ray devices.

“Unfortunately, explosives detection technology lacks reliability and lags in its capability to automatically identify concealed weapons and explosives,” it said. “The next generation of whole body scanning machines also are not effective at detecting explosives hidden within the body and raise privacy and health concerns that DHS has not fully addressed. Our conclusion is that despite 10 years of working on the problem, the aviation screening system still falls short in critical ways with respect to detection.”