Obama assigns new responsibilities for keeping government connected in case of emergency

Friday - 7/6/2012, 9:20pm EDT

In an executive order issued Friday, President Barack Obama laid out an all-hands-on-deck approach to developing policies for preserving government communications in the event of a national disaster or emergency.

"The federal government must have the ability to communicate at all times and under all circumstances to carry out its most critical and time sensitive missions," Obama said in the order, which calls for "survivable, resilient, enduring and effective communications" during emergencies.

Obama's order creates the Executive Committee on National Security and Emergency Preparedness Communications — or NS/EP communications — to be staffed with high-ranking officials from eight agencies and departments.

The committee will include officials from the:

  • Defense Department
  • State Department
  • Justice Department
  • Commerce Department
  • Homeland Security Department
  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)
  • General Services Administration
  • Federal Communications Commission
The secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security will co-chair the committee.

The director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an office within the White House, will be required to issue a yearly report on NS/EP communications and will advise the President on how radio spectrum and wireless can best be prioritized.

The full committee is tasked with coordinating planning for the use of NS/EP communications "under all hazards," according to the order. The committee will also develop a "long-term strategic vision" and detail funding requirements.

Specifically, DoD will be responsible for developing capabilities to support national security interests, while DHS is tasked with developing policies to support continuity of government operations.

DHS will take the lead in deciding how communication networks will be prioritized or restored in the event of an emergency and will operate a joint industry-government office to toward that end.

DHS already manages a number of offices designed to provide telecommunications functions during crises, namely the National Communications System, which was created after the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s.

The system includes a number of programs, such as the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), which allow federal agencies to access telephone and wireless service in the event of high-outages or services disruptions. Its tagline is "When the going gets tough, GETS keeps you going."

However, the executive order now directs DHS to develop a detailed plan describing the agency's organization and management structure for such services.

Notably, the order comes a week after a severe storm caused widespread power outages and disruptions to wireless and cell service in the Washington, D.C. area.

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