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The New World of Interoperability Communications

Four years ago, during the 2017 Inauguration, the country and the world existed in a very different reality than they do today. Today, a “new world” exists within a global pandemic and among First Amendment activities and protests. The 2021 Inauguration was unique for these reasons but also presented challenges in communications that are not so new. Now, more than ever, agencies need to collaborate to ensure continuity of government and security of the homeland as well as the health of the overall emergency communications ecosystem.

On October 28, 2020, the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) in collaboration with the Emergency Communications Division of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), facilitated the “D.C. 2020 Interoperability Summit: Preparing for the 59th U.S. Presidential Inauguration in the ‘New World’.” The virtual summit brought together 40 subject matter experts who presented on the readiness of interoperability communications for the 2021 Inauguration. Participants included more than 450 federal, state, and local agency officials. In preparation for the 2021 Inauguration, agencies in and around Washington, DC:

  • Reviewed the 2017 Inauguration activities and civil unrest that occurred throughout most of 2020;
  • Anticipated the impact the pandemic might have on the 2021 Inauguration, which was the 67th National Special Security Event (NSSE); and
  • Incorporated past interoperability lessons learned like those from the 2013 Navy Yard shooting. At the summit, former Navy employee Jennifer Bennet shared her real-world experience of survival during that chaotic event – as the building fire alarm blasted, shots were being fired, and co-workers were scrambling for their lives.

Applying Lessons Learned

Following the 2017 Inauguration, a comprehensive after-action report of the communications planning and support was prepared to analyze the event and identify successes and areas of improvement for interoperability and communications. Additionally, since the last Presidential Inauguration, a myriad of people, policies, processes, and protocols that drive the District’s communications ecosystems have changed. Therefore, the summit helped to establish common ground for interoperable communications for this NSSE by:

  • Highlighting critical changes in interoperable communications policy, product, and/or processes
  • Building on best practices and lessons learned from the last Inauguration; and
  • Addressing the challenges that 2021 Inauguration planners were facing and how those challenges would be mitigated.

The summit opened with a keynote speech by United States Secret Service (USSS) Director James Murray. As he explained, the USSS is a relatively small agency by design. Although it secures large-scale events, the USSS relies on external partnerships with local jurisdictions to ensure their security plans. Security includes on the ground, on the water, in the air, and in the cyber domain – with interoperability being a key component.

With more than 100 outside agencies being brought in to help with Inauguration Day, that key component had its challenges. To address these concerns, outside agency liaisons help to share communications among first responders who may bring various radio equipment and communication operations from across the country. To mitigate potential communication barriers, radios from outside agencies may be reprogrammed for use in current operations or agencies may be asked not to bring their radios at all. To address scanner application concerns, some communication lines have been upgraded with encryption. However, the risk remains for lost/stolen radios or other uncontrolled operations where communications can be overheard. Time and time again examples surface of agencies disregarding operational security or officer safety by failing to provide personnel with earpieces – or even worse, responders failing to wear and utilize this critical piece of equipment.

In the new world, interoperability facilitates the task flow throughout the coordination process and spans physical, electronic, and cyber security.

Interoperability facilitates the task flow throughout the coordination process and spans: physical/electronic/cyber security, venues, operational periods and functions, technology integration, communications (including primary, alternative, contingency, and emergency), and jurisdictions. For example, planning for an NSSE includes ensuring that dedicated resources remain available to manage daily operations and typical emergencies (e.g., 911 calls). Strong relationships with the cellular industry cannot be overstated. Planning for network optimization, planning for antenna enhancements, and deploying cell on wheels (COWS) or cell on light trucks (Colts) is crucial to supporting mass gatherings. The cellular industry remains one of the most important pieces of the communications ecosystem supporting all four components: public to government, government to government, government to public, and public to public.

A good communication plan also helps bridge interoperability gaps when agencies have not worked together before and do not share the same processes. For example, multiagency coordination centers share information and emergency operations centers share electronic platforms, with support staff on site to address technological issues. With many moving parts and many partner agencies, all key stakeholders need to be at the table when these centers are stood up.

Planning in a Pandemic

Planning in a pandemic has altered the way agencies collaborate and coordinate. This has put additional emphasis on reliable interoperable communications. Increased use of video meeting platforms like the summit have facilitated planning when in-person meetings are not possible. However, these platforms introduce new technological challenges as well as outside access concerns and appropriateness of topics addressed with an audience that may include unauthorized persons.

The office of the Statewide Interoperability Coordinator, housed at HSEMA, collaborates and coordinates at the local, federal, and regional levels and has had to adapt to this new world. With COVID-19, there was an internal need to become well versed in the virtual world to support the various groups and committees (e.g., using Microsoft Teams, Webex, Zoom, etc.). There also was a need to communicate on a more regular basis to address different dynamics across agencies. Sometimes it is necessary to overcommunicate.

During the Inauguration, agencies used internal communications to ensure that their personnel knew what was expected. A direct line of communication with organizers was maintained throughout the event. Just as important as internal agency communications were the external communications with other groups and the public. By leveraging digital technology, agencies were able to provide accurate and rapid communication both internally and externally. Public messaging for any NSSE or other major event requires careful coordination. Likewise, public health messaging needs to be consistent, especially during a pandemic. Technology such as exposure notification applications add more protection for identifying potential infections.

Addressing New World Issues

It is critical that the District stands ready to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from communications and other unanticipated obstacles during NSSEs. As such, the District Office of the Statewide Interoperable Coordinator strives to ensure the seamless provision of interoperable voice, data, and video communications between key stakeholders and partners in the public and non-public sector. The District and the National Capital Region (NCR) continue to work together to address the new challenges public safety and first responders face (or will face) as a result of the changing society.

The summit included seven breakout sessions that focused on key topic areas that are evolving:

  • Cybersecurity – preventing cyberattacks
  • Spectrum Deconfliction – mitigating spectrum interference
  • NCR Communications Interoperability Group – demonstrating how interoperability is based 10% on equipment and 90% on people
  • Emergency Communication Centers – building operational resilience in changing times
  • Cellular Industry – providing connectivity and meeting demand
  • Alerts & Warnings – enhancing public information sharing
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems – assisting (or hindering) public safety response efforts

Closing the summit was a presentation by Cathy Lanier, senior vice president, chief security officer of the National Football League (NFL). This final session demonstrated how much the public sector could learn from the evolutionary interoperability efforts of the private sector. Each year, the NFL sponsors large-scale events that are held multiple times year, in different locations (in the U.S. and abroad). Monitoring, incident management, and investigations and analysis comprise a broad, integrated collection of their analytical capabilities. Superbowl LIV in Miami, Florida demonstrated the types of interoperability challenges the NFL faces: 18 months of planning; collaboration with 25 federal and 40 state and local agencies; 2- to 3-mile security perimeter locked down for 10 days before game day; 46,000 credentials with varying access controls issued; security of the airspace with varying air restrictions (e.g., drone/no drone zones); cyberthreat monitoring; and COVID-19. Lanier emphasized the need to embrace the cybersecurity aspect (artificial intelligence and facial recognition), while recognizing the potential vulnerabilities.

Interoperability and related technologies are complex and continue to evolve. Events like the 2021 Inauguration highlight the importance of monitoring social media for physical threats as well as the sociopolitical climate. It is important to remain flexible and change interoperability plans as the event moves between planning stages through game day operations. New technologies undoubtedly introduce new vulnerabilities. However, maintaining interoperability means balancing these vulnerabilities while continuing to integrate these new technologies. Welcome to the new world of interoperability communications!

Charles Guddemi
Charles J. Guddemi

Charles Guddemi is the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency’s (HSEMA) statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC). He is responsible for coordinating interoperability and communications projects involving voice, data, and video. He chairs the District’s Interoperable Communications Committee and Cellular Industry/WiFi Provider Working Group. He serves as the secretary for the Statewide Interoperability Executives Council, is a member of the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators and current co-chair of FEMA’s Region III Regional Emergency Communications Coordinators Working Group. He also participates on several Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) committees and working groups. He joined HSEMA after a 25-year career with the United States Park Police (USPP). His assignments included working in Washington, D.C., New York Field Office, San Francisco Field Office, and the National Park Service Northeast Regional Headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He achieved the rank of deputy chief serving as the commander of the Services Division.



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