Public Safety, New Technologies, and the Future of Emergency Response Conference Review

The conference was an overwhelming success, with a remarkable number of attendees from Denver, Boulder, and across the country.

On November 28, 2007, Silicon Flatirons and the University of Colorado at Denver’s School of Public Affairs co-hosted a conference on Public Safety, New Technologies, and the Future of Emergency Response. The conference was an overwhelming success, with a remarkable number of attendees from Denver, Boulder, and across the country. Attendees included students from the School of Public Affairs, as well as from CU-Boulder’s law school and Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program. The students did an excellent job of adding to the discussion with helpful questions and comments, and were able to continue discussions with panelists (including leaders in government, the public safety community, and industry) during the reception following the conference. Overall, the conference was an overwhelming success. According to Morgan O’Brien, Chairman of Cyren Call Communications, “The conference built on the important work of Phil Weiser and Dale Hatfield in developing important new policy frameworks on which the FCC has based its policy going forward.” Click here for more articles on public safety.

The conference began with a welcome and overview of issues by Kathleen Beatty, the Dean of the School of Public Affairs, and Phil Weiser, Executive Director of Silicon Flatirons. Weiser introduced Dale Hatfield, who he referred to as the “killer application” of Silicon Flatirons. Hatfield is an adjunct professor at the CU, and the former Chief Engineer at the Federal Communications Commission. His contributions to Silicon Flatirons, and the public safety community in general are immeasurable. Hatfield offered a tutorial on public safety’s use of communications technology, highlighting how it lagged behind its corporate counterparts in using cutting edge information and communications technology.

After this helpful background on the underlying technology issues, Moderator Phil Weiser introduced the first panel, Opportunities for Interoperability and a Next Generation Network. He asked panelists to consider the barriers to interoperability, and why the legacy problem has been so difficult to resolve. On the interoperability front, Morgan O’Brien, Chairman of Cyren Call Communications and founder of Nextel, began by discussing the assignment of licenses to discrete units of government with multiple systems, and the natural preference of different groups for different technologies. Nancy Jesuale, President of NetCity, Inc., added that we are in no position to scrap much of the technology in the current public safety communications systems. Chris Guttman-McCabe, the Vice President of CTIA–The Wireless Association, added that it is often difficult to get personnel and other resources focused on something like interoperability, when they don’t see it as a problem. Stephen Meer, the Chief Technology Officer of Intrado, reminded us that our current situation is the result of a complicated past. He noted that the impetus for trunked radio systems was conservation of bandwidth, rather than interoperability, and that we would start from a different place if we were beginning from scratch today.

The second panel, Upgrading Our E-911 Infrastructure, began on a positive note, with Kathleen O’Brien Ham, the Managing Director of Federal Regulatory Affairs for T-Mobile, noting that the United States is “eons” ahead of Europe in terms of E-911 infrastructure, and that a lot of great work has already happened as the result of cooperation between the public safety community and industry. Jeff Robertson, Executive Director of the 911 Industry Alliance, said that another positive aspect of the current situation is that everyone is now in agreement that we need to improve the public safety network. Ray Gifford, a partner with Kamlet, Shepherd & Reichert, and former Chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, noted that it is important to think of which factors prohibit public safety from taking part in the dynamism of other markets. In particular, Gifford noted that there is a public goods problem, with no private entity having adequate and complete resources to internalize positive externalities. Gifford also added that there is a public choice problem, with beneficiaries of the current system protecting (and working to prevent others from getting) what they already have. Weiser added a third factor: the lack of public understanding. Brad Bernthal, a clinical professor at the Colorado Law, outlined a path to a better system, calling for a commitment to matching reality with citizen expectations, increased attention on a next generation architecture, and a straightforward, unified, and concerted message to policymakers.

The third and final panel was Overcoming the Culture of Silos and Facilitating Intergovernmental Cooperation. This panel began with a look into the “people problem” of public safety communications. Phil Weiser asked panelists to consider how to change entrenched mindsets to achieve interoperability. Charles Werner, a member of the SAFECOM Executive Committee, the IAFC Communications Committee, and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council noted that we are already starting to see changing mindsets. He also noted that education can change the way people approach problems. For example, Werner pointed to success from having a group of fire fighters and police officers sit down together to think of times when they would need to interoperate. Paul Teske, a Professor of Public Affairs, noted that we need a combination of incentives so that the people involved actually want to change. William Pessemier, Executive Communications Systems Advisor for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and former Incident Commander for Columbine High School, said that people issues are most troublesome when they interfere with the optimal use of technology. Mike Locatis, the Chief Information Officer for the State of Colorado, helped to put the issue in perspective by pointing to areas of success.

The conference concluded with a closing address by John Kneuer, former NTIA Administrator and Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce. Kneuer, pictured right, addressed problems of institutional inertia and underscored the challenges in implementing fundamental changes in this area.

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