Policy Task Group
© 2012 FrontLine Security (Vol 7, No 2)

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Though well-recognized as vital in the public safety and security sector, interoperable communications remain a constant challenge. This was made clear at a recent closed door event coordinated by General Dynamics Canada (GDC), where industry, government and customers addressed today’s ­capability gaps.

The increasing potential of both internal and external threats to public safety and security in North America provided the context for the meeting. The intent was to create a non-competitive forum for exchanging ideas, and GDC subsequently released a synopsis of the presentations to ­FrontLine Security.

According to the synopsis, it remains obvious that continuous and real-time field access to critical information continues to be compromised. Noting that “past policies of municipal, provincial, and federal governments, combined with the independent ­practices and procurement processes of public safety and security organizations, have created a collection of ‘siloed’ communications networks”, attendees acknowledged the need for effective interoperability. The solution, they suggest, lies in the efficient use of current and emerging hardware, ­software and end-user applications in the military and civil sectors.

The day-long session of presentations and discussion tended to confirm that providing additional applications that personnel can use in the field is not the main challenge. The need to establish a workable policy framework and processes for creating networks was considered much more urgent.

Keynote speaker Chris Phillips, whose 30-year police career includes a stint as Head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office in the U.K., pointed out that since 9-11, grievances have compounded and threats have changed (under continuous efforts to ­cultivate, improve and innovate). Phillips also noted additional challenges due to the accelerated speed at which information is spread via social media.

Now Managing Director of the private-sector International Protect and Prepare Security Office that he founded, Phillips cautioned that every country can expect previously-suppressed extremists to become more globally active, including in the West where many economies are fragile and ­experiencing growing unrest.

“People in these countries conclude that economic conditions have created a situation in which there are not enough police, so they are taking to the streets, assuming that they can get away with anything,” the report says in summarizing Phillips’ remarks, citing the 2011 Vancouver riots. “Confusing the issue is the emergence of groups whose sole objective is to protest … and they are mostly interested in a public display of their disaffection.”

Another key issue is the changing nature of terrorism, and a growing focus on mass casualties in easy targets such as transportation facilities. Terrorists are also resorting to multiple rather than single strikes – and their toolkit has expanded to include cyber attacks, kidnapping, non-suicide attacks, incendiaries, and “dirty” bombs.

The latest terrorist trend is to start wildfires. Setting uncontrollable fires threatens communities and large expanses of terrain, results in death and injury, causes pollution, and possibly the main goal is the significant economic strain from commandeering huge amounts of responder resources, exhausting police and other emergency services.

“The problem is that all the mad, bad, and sad people within a society … can buy anything they need to build a bomb at the local department store, or they can go online and get the information they need to build bombs quite easily. What’s more, all of these people have access to a variety of social media applications and outlets where they can claim to be a part of … any other terrorist group.”

Complicating matters, and adding another layer of vulnerability and instability, is the growing “insider” threat, from individual infiltrators or disaffected employees, that cyber security experts warn of.

Phillips suggests that Canada can no longer afford to assume that terrorism is someone else’s problem and we must adjust security processes and policies, learn to use the same tools terrorists use, and innovate. That includes monitoring social media and sharing whatever information is gleaned with other security agencies.

In the ensuing discussions, a task-force approach was described as the most effective way of plugging ‘capability gaps’ by involving not only public agencies but also the ­private sector. It was considered critical that such a task force should not have allegiance to, or be influenced by, any single public or private body.

The Centre for Security Science (CSS) within Defence Research & Development Canada (DRDC) was held up as a model approach in that it is mandated to develop, among other things, holistic solutions to problems. However, it was noted that reliable and ongoing funding could be problematic.

DRDC’s latest annual report shows that it had revenues of $342 million in 2010-2011 compared with $317 million the previous year, and $324 million in 2008-2009. However, like everything else in the federal structure, it is vulnerable to the ­latest round of spending constraints, details of which are expected to be released later this year when the government tables its fall economic update.
In the United States, meanwhile, there is renewed focus on developing and deploying a national interoperable wireless network for public safety. President Barack Obama’s administration is seeking $10.7 billion for the first year, and Congress has already approved $7 billion in start-up funding.

A similar setup in Canada was described in the synopsis as “unlikely” due to funding issues, but there was ­concensus at the meeting that a “uniquely Canadian” ­interoperable network should be a priority.

“A task force approach can be used to affect changes in the laws governing how public safety and security should be managed and delivered,” the synopsis explains. “This can be achieved by including individuals and organizations in the task force that can influence how policies are written. By collaborating as part of a task force, everyone involved can concentrate on making real changes without worrying about organizational affiliations. In addition, a task force approach allows the team to focus on identifying potential problems or challenges associated with getting things changed, and address them before they become an issue.”

However, an overriding and “extremely difficult” challenge was to find ways that policy-makers can be made aware of a task group’s efforts, which could then be translated into policy with appropriate funding. This requires overcoming multiple layers of governance and jurisdictional issues.

“A collaborative approach will ensure that changes are implemented that everyone can agree on … rather than disconnected, individual solutions,” the synposis says. “Task forces like CSS don’t have a specific institutional perspective on any issue. Therefore, they are in the best position to determine who the key players in a discussion should be and who needs to be involved to advance recommendations … to the right government agencies.”

The synopsis suggests there are clear savings to be had through such a coordinated approach, but adds that it can only succeed if public-sector ­procurement is better aligned with interoperability objectives and if the various agencies optimize and share each other’s resources.

Meanwhile, the private sector should begin to think of a nationally interoperable network as an opportunity to engineer one hardware kit, which could be sold to multiple organizations in large volume, rather than proprietary hardware with more limited appeal.

“Most of the technology needed to enable ­interoperable ­communications already exists,” the synposis concludes, citing general acknowledgement among the meeting’s participants. “The key benefit of a dialog between all stakeholders is that it makes it easier for everyone involved to determine what technology is available beyond the radio and how it can be adapted to improve public safety and security.”

Ken Pole is a contributing editor at FrontLine Security.
© FrontLine Security 2012