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Emergency communications plan update will blend old and new

The Homeland Security Department is incorporating advanced technologies into an emergency communications strategy, but first responders will have to rely on legacy handheld devices for the short term, a DHS official said on Monday.

An update to the 2008 National Emergency Communications Plan will include a roadmap on deploying next-generation technologies, including broadband, said Chris Essid, director of DHS' Office of Emergency Communications. The plan governs how federal, state and local officials stay in touch during disasters.

"We've got to continue evolving the vision to include emerging technologies; however, as technology evolves, it's more critical to focus on the coordination piece of the pie," Essid said during the 9-1-1 Goes to Washington conference in Arlington, Va. "Technologies exist to solve the problems [of emergency communications]; so why haven't they? There's a lack of standard operating procedures, exercises [and] governance. It's the same old gaps."

The broadband piece of the updated strategy will be influenced by the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan, due out on Tuesday, according to Essid. Though details of FCC's plan have not been revealed, recommendations for deploying a dedicated broadband network for the public safety community will be included.

The first response community should not expect an exodus from existing technologies, however, including mobile radios.

"The ability to implement dedicated broadband for emergency response faces a number of challenges; cost, standards, spectrum [and] roaming capability," Essid said. "This is overall unproven for mission-critical voice communication, and a lot of work needs to be done to see if broadband is a viable strategy for public safety."

In the meantime, DHS will lead a dual-path strategy that continues reliance on current land mobile radio and mobile data communications, while development of a national public safety network moves forward.

"One day maybe there will be convergence, but [broadband] is not ready today and won't be tomorrow," Essid said. "Land mobile radio will be here for quite some time, and this is the truth that people need to hear."

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