Brian Bark serves as senior vice president at Mission Critical Partners, a company he joined in 2009 after spending more than 12 years as a vice president and manager of business development for L. Robert Kimball & Associates.
He is the former communications operations manager for the City of Pittsburgh Safety Department and consolidated 21 dispatch centers as the Public Safety Director/911 Coordinator for Washington County, Penn.
He recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz about the state of public communications systems in the U.S. and the opportunities for leaders from the public, private and civil sectors to improve the nation’s public safety communications.
ExecutiveBiz: What is the state of public safety communications in the United States? What are we doing well at the state, local, and national level and where is there room to improve?
Brian Bark: Every jurisdiction is somewhat different. Whether its police, fire, EMS, emergency management, or homeland security, there’s a commitment to protect public life, safety and property. There’s no question that the commitment and passion to achieve that mission is in place across our country.
Historically though, before 9/11, the federal government – and therefore the local governments – had a more disjointed approach to solving public safety and interoperable communications problems. It didn’t frown upon problem solving at the individual, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction level. It didn’t promote a regional approach.
Luckily, much of that has changed.
Today there are plenty of opportunities for agencies to work together on the many different public safety, life safety and property protection missions that tend to overlap. For example, many localities have the opportunity to work with other localities and levels of government on what are called mutual aid agreements to provide emergency assistance to each other in the event of disasters or other crises.
These entities might not necessarily share the same technology platform, but they can agree to share resources that enhances their technology capabilities.
While recognizing that each jurisdiction has the responsibility to operationally serve their locality and constituents, there is an increased acknowledgment of the need to collaborate, coordinate, and work across political boundaries.
ExecutiveBiz: What are we seeing in terms of movements in that direction? Has there been legislation enacted or discourse between leaders that would indicate improvement?
Brian Bark: There is certainly some effort to advance a common platform. The First Net program is an attempt to do that. Ultimately, it’s possible to work at the local level and provide that common platform in Emergency Services operations to improve situational awareness, response and recovery.
After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security provided a lot of funding that was not strategically invested. There are opportunities to improve capabilities by converging many programs that exist, including public safety and interoperability grant programs, and various homeland security initiatives.
Even things such as traffic cameras on highways could be leveraged to be used for more than traffic management; they could become part of a comprehensive community awareness and situational awareness component for public safety.
Integrating all of our government assets – sharing instead of segmenting these assets – would go a long way toward achieving that. At the micro level, there appear to be some initiatives to help support that kind of collaboration. In Texas, there are counsels of governments that support multiple communications efforts under one umbrella promoting one common policy and one common technology platform.
And through those economies of scale, there are some efficiencies that are generated that allow more capital and operating funds to go towards the response on the street. Ultimately, we’re all judged on how well are we prepared, how well we respond when an incident occurs, and how well we protect the public.
ExecutiveBiz: What challenges are there to incorporating the private sector and citizenry into these types of solutions?
Brian Bark: The first step is a public education program. Depoliticizing the tone and the discourse to boost that common mission through partnership with the private sector, as well as through our elected officials and our first responder community, is going to be critical going forward. It’s about protecting life, safety of our residents to give them the confidence to go where they want to go and to exercise the freedoms that are available.
At the macro level, the focus needs to shift away from “What’s in it for me?” to “How can we accomplish our mission together?” and that’s going to require compromise. It’s going to require forward thinking, not looking at how things worked in the past. It will require the breakdown of jurisdictional barriers between agencies, and across geographic, political, and even program jurisdictions.
It’s really about advancing things at a policy level and then implementing the programmatic funding, governance, technology and operations to achieve that objective across all these programs.
We just have to set that audacious goal that everybody wants to achieve and then strive toward the achievement of that goal without sectarian boundaries.
In and around Washington D.C., the national capital region, folks have come together to plan and train and respond together. But, there are still some barriers in place. Because you’re dealing with the District, the state of Maryland, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, you’re facing diverse policies and policymakers, and reaching a common goal is a real challenge.
Those elected officials are focused on so much more than just public safety or life safety issues. Those diversities have the potential to create real structural barriers to enhancing that ability to respond in our nation’s capital and provide that mutual aid, provide that mutual support. Some of those barriers have been removed after 9/11, but there’s a lot more that can be done.
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