From 2004 to 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approved more than $4.3 billion in grants to improve communications interoperability among first responders nationwide. More grant money has gone to interoperability than to any other initiative. Yet for years, reports the Center for Public Integrity, results have failed to live up to expectations.
Congress directed most interoperability dollars towards hardware: portable and car radios; “repeaters” that extended a signal's range; antennae and tower systems. Experts and even DHS officials say that equipment alone cannot create interoperability. “There was a lack of understanding in the congressional committees about the importance of planning dollars, that you could waste money if you don't plan,” says Harlin McEwen, a former police chief who chairs the communications committee at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “They didn't want to spend money on things you couldn't see.” The Homeland Security Department’s Office of Emergency Communications says that as of last July, 46 of 55 milestones for the first year of a national emergency communications plan have been met.