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How the Air Force Changed Tune on Cybersecurity

How the Air Force Changed Tune on Cybersecurity

Peter Kim, chief information security officer (CISO) for the U.S. Air Force, calls himself Dr. Doom. Lauren Knausenberger, director of cyberspace innovation for the Air Force, is his opposite. Where he sees trouble, she sees opportunity. Where he sees reasons to say no, she seeks ways to change the question.

For Kim, the dialogue they’ve shared since Knausenberger left her job atop a private sector tech consultancy to join the Air Force, has been transformational.

“I have gone into a kind of rehab for cybersecurity pros,” he says. “I’ve had to admit I have a problem: I can’t lock everything down.” He knows. He’s tried.

The two engage constantly, debating and questioning whether decisions and steps designed to protect Air Force systems and data are having their intended effect, they said, sharing a dais during a recent AFCEA cybersecurity event in Crystal City. “Are the things we’re doing actually making us more secure or just generating a lot of paperwork?” asks Knausenberger. “We are trying to turn everything on its head.”

As for Kim, she added, “Pete’s doing really well on his rehab program.”

One way Knausenberger has turned Kim’s head has been her approach to security certification packages for new software. Instead of developing massive cert packages for every program – documentation that’s hundreds of pages thick and unlikely to every be read – she wants the Air Force to certify the processes used to develop software, rather than the programs.

“Why don’t we think about software like meat at the grocery?” she asked. “USDA doesn’t look at every individual piece of meat… Our goal is to certify the factory, not the program.”

Similarly, Knausenberger says the Air Force is trying now to apply similar requirements to acquisition contracts, accepting the idea that since finding software vulnerabilities is inevitable, it’s best to have a plan for fixing them rather than hoping to regulate them out of existence. “So you might start seeing language that says, ‘You need to fix vulnerabilities within 10 days.’ Or perhaps we may have to pay bug bounties,” she says. “We know nothing is going to be perfect and we need to accept that. But we also need to start putting a level of commercial expectation into our programs.”

Combining development, security and operations into an integrated process – DevSecOps, in industry parlance – is the new name of the game, they argue together. The aim: Build security in during development, rather than bolting it on at the end.

The takeaways from the “Hack-the-Air-Force” bug bounty programs run so far, in that every such effort yields new vulnerabilities – and that thousands of pages of certification didn’t prevent them. As computer power becomes less costly and automation gets easier, hackers can be expected to use artificial intelligence to break through security barriers.

Continuous automated testing is the only way to combat their persistent threat, Kim said.

Michael Baker, CISO at systems integrator, General Dynamics Information Technology, agrees. “The best way to find the vulnerabilities – is to continuously monitor your environment and challenge your assumptions, he says. “Hackers already use automated tools and the latest vulnerabilities to exploit systems. We have to beat them to it – finding and patching those vulnerabilities before they can exploit them. Robust and assured endpoint protection, combined with continuous, automated testing to find vulnerabilities and exploits, is the only way to do that.”

I think we ought to get moving on automated security testing and penetration,” Kim added. “The days of RMF [risk management framework] packages are past. They’re dinosaurs. We’ve got to get to a different way of addressing security controls and the RMF process.”

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JOMIS Will Take E-Health Records to the Frontlines

JOMIS Will Take E-Health Records to the Frontlines

The Defense Department Military Health System Genesis electronic health records (EHR) system went live last October at Madigan Army Medical Center (Wash.), the biggest step so far in modernizing DOD’s vast MHS with a proven commercial solution. Now comes the hard part: Tying that system in with operational medicine for deployed troops around the globe.

War zones, ships at sea and aeromedical evacuations each present a new set of challenges for digital health records. Front-line units lack the bandwidth and digital infrastructure to enable cloud-based health systems like MHS Genesis. Indeed, when bandwidth is constrained, health data ranks last on the priority list, falling below command and control, intelligence and other mission data.

The Joint Operational Medicine Information Systems (JOMIS) program office oversees DOD’s operational medicine initiatives, including the legacy Theater Medical Information Program – Joint system used in today’s operational theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as aboard ships and in other remote locales.

“One of the biggest pain points we have right now is the issue of moving data from the various roles of care, from the first responder [in the war zone] to the First Aid station to something like Landstuhl (Germany) Regional Medical Center, to something in the U.S.,” Navy Capt. Dr. James Andrew Ellzy told GovTechWorks. He is deputy program executive officer (functional) for JOMIS, under the Program Executive Office, Defense Healthcare Management Systems (PEO DHMS).

PEO DHMS defines four stages or “roles,” once a patient begins to receive care. Role One is for first responders; Role Two: Forward resuscitative care; Role Three: Theater hospitals; and Role Four: Service-based medical facilities.

“Most of those early roles right now, are still using paper records,” Ellzy said. Electronic documentation begins once medical operators are in an established location. “Good records usually start the first place that has a concrete slab.”

Among the changes MHS Genesis will bring is consolidation. The legacy AHLTA (Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application – Theater) solution and its heavily modified theater-level variant AHLTA-T, incorporate separate systems for inpatient and outpatient support.

MHS Genesis however, will provide a single record regardless of patient status.

For deployed medical units, that’s important. Set up and maintenance for AHLTA’s outpatient records and the Joint Composite Health Care System have always been challenging.

“In order to set up the system, you have to have the technical skillset to initialize and sustain these systems,” said Ryan Loving, director of Health IT Solutions for military health services and the VA at General Dynamics Information Technology’s (GDIT) Health and Civilian Solutions Division. “This is a bigger problem for the Army than the other services, because the system is neither operated nor maintained until they go downrange. As a result, they lack the experience to be experts in setup and sustainment.”

JOMIS’ ultimate goal according to Stacy A. Cummings, who heads PEO DHMS, is to provide a virtually seamless representation of MHS Genesis deployed locations.

“For the first time, we’re bringing together inpatient and outpatient, medical and dental records, so we’re going to have a single integrated record for the military health system,” Cummings said at the HIMSS 2018 health IT conference in March. Last year, she told Government CIO magazine, “We are configuring the same exact tool for low-and no-communications environments.”

Therein lies the challenge, said GDIT’s Loving. “Genesis wasn’t designed for this kind of austere environment. Adapting to the unique demands of operational medicine will require a lot of collaboration with military health, with service-specific tactical networks, and an intimate understanding of those network environments today and where they’re headed in the future.”

Operating on the tactical edge – whether doing command and control or sharing medical data – is probably the hardest problem to solve, said Tom Sasala, director of the Army Architecture Integration Center and the service’s Chief Data Officer. “The difference between the enterprise environment and the tactical environment, when it comes to some of the more modern technologies like cloud, is that most modern technologies rely on an always-on, low-latency network connection. That simply doesn’t exist in a large portion of the world – and it certainly doesn’t exist in a large portion of the Army’s enterprise.”

Military units deploy into war zones and disaster zones where commercial connectivity is either highly compromised or non-existent. Satellite connectivity is limited at best. “Our challenge is how do we find commercial solutions that we cannot just adopt, but [can] adapt for our special purposes,” Sasala said.

MHS Genesis is like any modern cloud solution in that regard. In fact, it’s based on Cerner Millennium, a popular commercial EHR platform. So while it may be perfect for garrison hospitals and clinics – and ideal for sharing medical records with other agencies, civilian hospitals and health providers – the military’s operational requirements present unique circumstances unimagined by the original system’s architects.

Ellzy acknowledges the concern. “There’s only so much bandwidth,” he said. “So if medical is taking some of it, that means the operators don’t have as much. So how do we work with the operators to get that bandwidth to move the data back and forth?”

Indeed, the bandwidth and latency standards available via satellite links weren’t designed for such systems, nor fast enough to accommodate their requirements. More important, when bandwidth is constrained, military systems must line up for access, and health data is literally last on the priority list. Even ideas like using telemedicine in forward locations aren’t viable. “That works well in a hospital where you have all the connectivity you need,” Sasala said. “But it won’t work so well in an austere environment with limited connectivity.”

The legacy AHLTA-T system has a store-and-forward capability that allows local storage while connectivity is constrained or unavailable, with data forwarded to a central database once it’s back online. Delays mean documentation may not be available at subsequent locations when patients are moved from one level of care to the next.

The challenge for JOMIS will be to find a way to work in theater and then connect and share saved data while overcoming the basic functional challenges that threaten to undermine the system in forward locations.

“I’ll want the ability to go off the network for a period of time,” Ellzy said, “for whatever reason, whether I’m in a place where there isn’t a network, or my network goes down or I’m on a submarine and can’t actually send information out.”

AHLTA-T manages the constrained or disconnected network situation by allowing the system to operate on a stand-alone computer (or network configuration) at field locations, relying on built-in store-and-forward functionality to save medical data locally until it can be forwarded to the Theater Medical Data Store and Clinical Data Repository. There, it can be accessed by authorized medical personnel worldwide.

Engineering a comparable JOMIS solution will be complex and involve working around and within the MHS Genesis architecture, leveraging innovative warfighter IT infrastructure wherever possible. “We have to adapt Genesis to the store-and-forward architecture without compromising the basic functionality it provides,” said GDIT’s Loving.

Ellzy acknowledges compromises necessary to make AHLTA-T work, led to unintended consequences.

“When you look at the legacy AHLTA versus the AHLTA-T, there are some significant differences,” he said. Extra training is necessary to use the combat theater version. That shouldn’t be the case with JOMIS. “The desire with Genesis,” Ellzy said, “is that medical personnel will need significantly less training – if any – as they move from the garrison to the deployed setting.”

Reporter Jon Anderson contributed to this report.

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Recognizing the Need for Innovation in Acquisition

Recognizing the Need for Innovation in Acquisition

The President’s Management Agenda lays out ambitious plans for the federal government to modernize information technology, prepare its future workforce and improve the way it manages major acquisitions.

These are among 14 cross-agency priority goals on which the administration is focused as it seeks to jettison outdated legacy systems and embrace less cumbersome ways of doing business.

Increasingly, federal IT managers are recognizing the need for innovation in acquisition, not just technology modernization. What exactly will it take to modernize an acquisition system bound by the 1,917-page Federal Acquisition Regulation? Federal acquisition experts say the challenges have less to do with changing those rules than with human behavior – the incentives, motivations and fears of people who touch federal acquisition – from the acquisition professionals themselves to mission owners and government executives and overseers.

“If you want a world-class acquisition system that is responsive to customer needs, you have to be able to use the right tool at the right time,” says Mathew Blum, associate administrator in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget. The trouble isn’t a lack of options, he said at the American Council for Technology’s ACT/IAC Acquisition Excellence conference March 27. Rather he said, it is lack of bandwidth and fear of failure that conspire to keep acquisition pros from trying different acquisition strategies.

Risk aversion is a critical issue, agreed Greg Capella, deputy director of the National Technology Information Service at the Department of Commerce. “If you look at what contracting officers get evaluated on, it’s the number of protests, or the number of small business awards [they make],” he said. “It’s not how many successful procurements they’ve managed or what were the results for individual customers.”

Yet there are ways to break through the fear of failure, protests and blame that can paralyze acquisition shops and at the same time save time, save money and improve mission outcomes. Here are four:

  1. Outside Help

The General Services Administration’s (GSA) 18F digital services organization focuses on improving public facing services and internal systems using commercial-style development approaches. Its agile software development program employs a multidisciplinary team incentivized to work together and produce results quickly, said Alla Goldman Seifert, acting director of GSA’s Office of Acquisition in the Technology Transformation Service.

Her team helps other federal agencies tackle problems quickly and incrementally using an agile development approach. “We bring in a cross-functional team of human-centered design and technical experts, as well as acquisition professionals — all of whom work together to draft a statement of work and do the performance-based contracting for agile software acquisition,” she said.

Acquisition planning may be the most important part of that process. Seifert said 18F learned a lot since launching its Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement. The group suffered seven protests in three venues. “But since then, every time we iterate, we make sure we right-size the scope and risk we are taking.” She added by approaching projects in a modular way, risks are diminished and outcomes improved. That’s a best practice that can be replicated throughout government.

“We’re really looking at software and legacy IT modernization: How do you get a mission critical program off of a mainframe? How do you take what is probably going to be a five-year modernization effort and program for it, plan for it and budget for it?” Seifert asked.

GSA experiments in other ways, as well. For example, 18F helped agencies leverage the government’s Challenge.gov platform, publishing needs and offering prizes to the best solutions. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) currently seeks ideas for more efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum in its Spectrum Collaboration Challenge. DARPA will award up to $3.5 million to the best ideas. “Even [intelligence community components] have really enjoyed this,” Seifert said. “It really is a good way to increase competition and lower barriers to entry.”

  1. Coaching and Assistance

Many program acquisition officers cite time pressure and lack of bandwidth to learn new tools as barriers to innovation. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem: How do you find the time to learn and try something new?

The Department of Homeland Security’s Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL) was created to help program offices do just that – and then capture and share their experience so others in DHS can leverage the results. The PIL provides coaching, advice and asks only that the accumulated knowledge is shared by webinars and other internal means.

“How do people find time to do innovative stuff?” asked Eric Cho, project lead for PIL. “Either one: find ways to do less, or two: borrow from someone else’s work.” Having a coach to help is also critical, and that’s where his organization comes in.

In less than 100 days, the PIL recently helped a Customs and Border Protection team acquire a system to locate contraband such as drugs hidden in walls, by using a high-end stud finder, Cho said. The effort was completed in less than half the time of an earlier, unsuccessful effort.

Acquisition cycle time can be saved in many ways, from capturing impressions immediately, via group evaluations after oral presentations, to narrowing the competitive field by means of a down-select before trade-off analyses on qualified finalists. Reusing language from similar solicitations can also save time, he said. “This is not an English class.”

Even so, the successful PIL program still left middle managers in program offices a little uncomfortable, DHS officials acknowledged – the natural result of trying something new. Key to success is having high-level commitment and support for such experiments. DHS’s Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa has been an outspoken advocate of experimentation and the PIL. That makes a difference.

“It all comes back to the culture of rewarding compliance, rather than creativity,” said OMB’s Blum. “We need to figure out how we build incentives to encourage the workforce to test and adopt new and better ways to do business.”

  1. Outsourcing for Innovation

Another approach is to outsource the heavy-lifting to another better skilled or better experienced government entity to execute on a specialized need, such as hiring GSA’s 18F to manage agile software development.

Similarly, outsourcing to GSA’s FEDSIM is a proven strategy for efficiently managing and executing complex, enterprise-scale programs with price tags approaching $1 billion or more. FEDSIM combines both acquisition and technical expertise to manage such large-scale projects, and execute quickly by leveraging government-wide acquisition vehicles such as Alliant or OASIS, which have already narrowed the field of viable competitors.

“The advantage of FEDSIM is that they have experience executing these large-scale complex IT programs — projects that they’ve done dozens of times — but that others may only face once in a decade,” says Michael McHugh, staff vice president within General Dynamics IT’s Government Wide Acquisition Contract (GWAC) Center. The company supports Alliant and OASIS among other GWACs. “They understand that these programs shouldn’t be just about price, but in identifying the superior technical solution within a predetermined reasonable price range. There’s a difference.”

For program offices looking for guidance rather than to outsource procurement, FEDSIM is developing an “Express Platform” with pre-defined acquisition paths that depend on the need and acquisition templates designed. These streamline and accelerate processes, reduce costs and enable innovation. It’s another example of sharing best practices across government agencies.

  1. Minimizing Risk

OMB’s Blum said he doesn’t blame program managers for feeling anxious. He gets that while they like the concept of innovation, they’d rather someone else take the risk. He also believes the risks are lower than they think.

“If you’re talking about testing something new, the downside risk is much less than the upside gain,” Blum said. “Testing shouldn’t entail any more risk than a normal acquisition if you’re applying good acquisition practices — if you’re scoping it carefully, sharing information readily with potential sources so they understand your goals, and by giving participants a robust debrief,” he added. Risks can be managed.

Properly defining the scope, sounding out experts, defining goals and sharing information cannot happen in a vacuum, of course. Richard Spires, former chief information officer at DHS, and now president of Learning Tree International, said he could tell early if projects were likely to succeed or fail based on the level of teamwork exhibited by stakeholders.

“If we had a solid programmatic team that worked well with the procurement organization and you could ask those probing questions, I’ll tell you what: That’s how you spawn innovation,” Spires said. “I think we need to focus more on how to build the right team with all the right stakeholders: legal, security, the programmatic folks, the IT people running the operations.”

Tony Cothron, vice president with General Dynamics IT’s Intelligence portfolio agreed, saying it takes a combination of teamwork and experience to produce results.

“Contracting and mission need to go hand-in-hand,” Cothron said. “But in this community, mission is paramount. The things everyone should be asking are what other ways are there to get the job done? How do you create more capacity? Deliver analytics to help the mission? Improve continuity of operations? Get more for each dollar? These are hard questions, and they require imaginative solutions.”

For example, Cothron said, bundling services may help reduce costs. Likewise, contractors might accept lower prices in exchange for a longer term. “You need to develop a strategy going in that’s focused on the mission, and then set specific goals for what you want to accomplish,” he added. “There are ways to improve quality. How you contract is one of them.”

Risk of failure doesn’t have to be a disincentive to innovation. Like any risk, it can be managed – and savvy government professionals are discovering they can mitigate risks by leveraging experienced teams, sharing best practices and building on lessons learned. When they do those things, risk decreases – and the odds of success improve.

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Design Thinking and DevOps Combine for Better Customer Experience

Design Thinking and DevOps Combine for Better Customer Experience

How citizens interact with government websites tells you much about how to improve – as long as you’re paying attention, said Aaron Wieczorek, digital services expert with U.S. Digital Services’ team at the Department of Veteran Affairs.

“At VA we will literally sit down with veterans, watch them work with the website and apply for benefits,” he said. The aim is to make sure the experience is what users want and expect he said, not “what we think they want.”

Taking copious notes on their observations, the team then sets to work on programming improvements that can be quickly put to the test. “Maybe some of the buttons were confusing or some of the way things work is confusing – so we immediately start reworking,” Wieczorek explained.

Applying a modern agile development approach means digital services can immediately put those tweaks to the test in their development environment. “If it works there, good. Then it moves to staging. If that’s acceptable, it deploys into production,” Wieczorek said.

That process can happen in days. Vets.gov deploys software updates into production 40 times per month Wieczorek said, and agency wide to all kinds of environments 600 times per month.

Case in point: Vets.gov’s digital Form 1010 EZ, which allows users to apply for VA healthcare online.

“We spent hundreds of hours watching veterans, and in end we were able to totally revamp everything,” Wieczorek said. “It’s actually so easy now, you can do it all on your phone.” More than 330,000 veterans have applied that way since the digital form was introduced. “I think that’s how you scale things.”

Of course, one problem remains: Vets.gov is essentially a veteran-friendly alternative site to VA.gov, which may not be obvious to search engines or veterans looking for the best way in the door. Search Google for “VA 1010ez” and the old, mobile-unfriendly PDF form still shows as the top result. The new mobile-friendly application? It’s the third choice.

At the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, developers take a similar approach, but focus hard on balancing speed, quality and design for maximum results. “We believe that requirements and needs should be seen like a carton of milk: The longer they sit around, the worse they get,” said Corry Robb product design lead in the Office of GEOINT Services at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “We try to handle that need as quickly as we can and deliver that minimally viable product to the user’s hands as fast as we can.”

DevOps techniques, where development and production processes take place simultaneously, increase speed. But speed alone is not the measure of success, Robb said. “Our agency needs to focus on delivering the right thing, not just the wrong thing faster.” So in addition to development sprints, his team has added “design sprints to quickly figure out the problem-solution fit.”

Combining design thinking, which focuses on using design to solve specific user problems, is critical to the methodology, he said. “Being hand in hand with the customer – that’s one of the core values our group has.”

“Iterative development is a proven approach,” said Dennis Gibbs, who established the agile development practice in General Dynamics Information Technology’s Intelligence Solutions Division. “Agile and DevOps techniques accelerate the speed of convergence on a better solution.  We continually incorporate feedback from the user into the solution, resulting in a better capability delivered faster to the user.”

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Fragmented 911 Networks Put Drag on Next-Generation Upgrades

Fragmented 911 Networks Put Drag on Next-Generation Upgrades

One of two 911 Call Centers in Collier County, Fla. Photo by David Silverberg

In emergency response, faster is always better and efficiency is always paramount.

But the 911 system that undergirds America’s emergency responders is a mish-mash of incompatible, often outdated systems and fragmented local jurisdictions. The combination makes an upgrade of the nation’s system with Next-Generation 911 (NG911) technology far more challenging in the years ahead.

“It has to do with how 911 grew up,” explains Laurie Flaherty, coordinator of the National 911 Program at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, when this system was first set up … there was no way for any of the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to connect to each other,” Flaherty says. “It was just physically, technologically not possible.”

Today, there are some 5,899 primary and secondary PSAPs, or 911 call centers, according to the National Emergency Number Association, spread across the nation, each run by a separate political jurisdiction. Says Flaherty: “Up until very recently [they] have functioned as completely independent operations, because they had to.”

Now new technology allows PSAPs to share and interact as never before. But the lack of a cohesive future roadmap is frustrating efforts to upgrade systems nationwide. The Federal government is looking to the states, but most state governments leave NG911 upgrades to the checkerboard of local jurisdictions that manage 911 today.

The result: Upgrading the nation’s tangled 911 infrastructure is proving harder and moving more slowly, than if Federal or state leaders were more involved.

“The culture is not very collective – at least it has not been so until very recently,” Flaherty says. “With the advent of this digital IP-based infrastructure, all of a sudden, ideas like consistency, uniformity, collaboration and coordination become important in a way they never were before. The community worked together on a number of things previous to this, but certainly not to the extent that they do now.”

Clear data on the state of NG911 throughout the country is hard to find. When the National Highway Safety Administration surveyed the states in 2014, 16 states did not report any data at all. Exactly how much it will cost to upgrade the existing nationwide system is still anybody’s guess. The Federal Communications Commission launched a cost study in 2015, but a final report is not expected until 2017.

Nationwide, much if not most of NG911 activity takes place at the county and local level, eluding federal data collection.

Two counties – one in northern Virginia and one in Florida – illustrate the disparate paths local governments may take on the road to modernization.

Forging Ahead in Fairfax County, Va.
Spreading south and west of Washington, D.C., Fairfax County, Virginia, is among the nation’s richest counties. As part of the National Capital Region’s sovereign jurisdictions, it has the latest and best rescue equipment, procedures and practices, standing ready for any contingency from the personal to the catastrophic.

In 2015, the Fairfax County 911 program was named one of the nation’s 10 best 911 centers by 911DispatcherEDU.org, an independent educational website. Fairfax County 911 is aided by its critical location, the cooperative nature of its neighboring jurisdictions, its robust county funding and state and Federal grants from the Urban Area Security Initiative.

With more than 1.1 million people packed into just 407 square miles, about 400,000 calls to 911 are handled by Fairfax County each year. The numbers demonstrate the changing nature of emergency calls. In 2015, 81.4 percent of those calls came from cellular phones and 16.4 percent from landline phones. Though only 2.2 percent came from voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones, that figure is expected to increase.

The fact that most calls to 911 are now from cell phones is one of the biggest drivers behind NG911. Landlines are tied to specific street addresses. But cell phones by definition can be anywhere, and mobile callers may not be able to communicate their location to a 911 operator.

“The current 911 network does not allow for the transmission of geolocation coordinates from a mobile phone. This can result in the caller being transferred to the incorrect PSAP and simultaneously fails to provide accurate location information,” says Edward Naybor, vice president at General Dynamics Information Technology.

Keeping Up: Collier County, Fla.
If Fairfax County, Va., exemplifies a forward-looking, heavily invested and publicly supported modern system on the cusp of moving to NG911, Collier County, Fla., embodies what is more typical throughout much of the country, particularly the South.

More rural than Fairfax, Collier County 911 serves a third as many people in an area nearly six times as large. With about 340,000 people living in the county’s 2,305 square miles – 70 percent of which is protected parks, preserves and wildlife refuges – its two PSAPs received 167,000 calls to its 911 service in 2015. There were also 530,000 law enforcement calls and 52,000 fire and emergency medical calls. Of these, 14 percent were landline, 80 percent were cellular and 6 percent were voice over Internet. Collier was the first Florida county to integrate texting into its 911 system in June 2014 and logged 368 short message service (SMS) sessions last year.

Its 911 system is housed in a modern facility. The monitors and workstations are new and updated but in other ways, its emergency response system is behind the times: Some first responders here still use pagers.

Bob Finney, the technical manager overseeing Collier County’s 911 system, says technology is a priority for County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk. “[He] started as a dispatcher and he’s very communications- and technology-oriented,” Finney says. “He wants to be on the cutting edge of response.”

Under Rambosk, Collier County is upgrading and improving its emergency response capabilities. On January 26, it replaced its 17-year old dispatch system with a new computer-aided dispatch system that can deliver live updates from the 911 center and enhanced incident maps to first responders in their vehicles, providing insights like floor plans, details on hazardous materials, hydrant locations and shortest-distance routing. In August, the county’s 911 system will be linked to a separate PSAP serving the city of Naples, an independent jurisdiction within Collier County.

County communications managers would like to move to NG911 and hoping for Federal money. “Until the federal government comes up with money it will not happen in the state,” Finney says. “It’s frustrating.”

Florida has no overall strategy guiding NG911 implementation, leaving counties on their own. Many are banding together in regional groupings to coordinate and support their emergency response efforts. Collier County for example, joined with nine other counties along the western part of the state.

“We wanted to look to see how we could work together to provide common infrastructure,” Finney says. The 10 county 911 coordinators meet to discuss costs, maintenance and cooperation.

Similar regional groupings have developed to advance NG911 programs in southern Illinois and the state of Washington.

Facing the Future
On the national level, concern is growing about the state of emergency response systems.

“The public communications providers are trying to retire the old infrastructure,” Flaherty says. “More than one company has plans by 2020 to retire their old system in terms of how they deliver 911 calls. There’s some sense of urgency. But the challenges are not small in terms of the state and local governments moving forward.”

Wireless carriers want to proceed to NG911 and develop FirstNet. The FCC has also been working to advance the program. But progress has been slow. An FCC task force set up to settle on an optimal PSAP architecture for NG911 only recently completed its work.

“We’re seeing progress but not as fast we’d like to see it,” Flaherty says. “State and local governments are not flush, so finding the money to make the leap is difficult.”

An auction of spectrum planned by the FCC is expected to provide $115 million for NG911, but the auction will not take place for another year. A grant program will start taking applications around the same time.

Flaherty would like to see national-level efforts to at least sort out basic information: Amazingly, there is no centralized listing today of the nation’s PSAPs and their individual contact information.

Flaherty would also like to see more nationwide coordination: “If I had unlimited power to move this forward, one of the things I’d make happen is a discussion of what needs to be done at the national level – not necessarily at the federal level, the national level – in order to pull off a nationwide system.” A national effort would include every stakeholder: private companies, federal, state and local governments, non-profit organizations, think tanks and citizens.

“I have to believe that as much as the state and local governments are doing, if we’re going to achieve a seamless, nationwide system, there has to be some level of coordination at the national level,” she says.

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