DHS: Smartphones 'next stage' of emergency communications

Thursday - 8/25/2011, 10:39am EDT

Greg Schaffer, acting deputy undersecretary of National Protection and Programs Directorate, DHS

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By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

Since 9/11, the government has made "significant progress" in emergency communications, said Greg Schaffer, the acting deputy undersecretary of the Homeland Security Department's National Protection and Programs Directorate.

But the next step of emergency communications will have to include smartphone-like capabilities and probably partnerships with the private sector, Schaffer said.

For the past 50 years, first-responders and law enforcement officials have relied on land mobile devices, like walkie talkies. In an emergency event — like this week's earthquake — the two-way radio is reliable, especially as cell phone networks become overtaxed.

These devices, however, are expensive and do not have the "data capability that the average college student has on a smartphone," Schaffer said. For example, emergency responders cannot take and send photos and video of a scene from their communication devices.

Tapping into the private sector market could save money for agencies, allowing government to take advantage of the economies of scale, he said.

Smartphone use among first responders will require a cellular network that can handle the activity. Currently, the Wireless Priority Service and the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service prioritizes calls for federal, state and local law enforcement, emergency and other government officials.

The administration has proposed creating a broadband public safety network. The proposal commits $10.7 billion for a nationwide buildout, Government Technology reports.

"In these fiscal moments, we're all thinking about what makes the most sense and analyzing where investments ought to be made," Schaffer said.

"The beauty of this particular proposal is that it really is focused on delivering a capability that would be more cost effective over the long run than continuing to try to do other things," he said.

Right now, he said, "The ball is in Congress' court."

Schaffer's interview is part of Federal News Radio's special report "9/11: A Government Changed."