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Talking with the Champions--James J. Flyzik, Treasury

October 2, 1998
by Sareen R. Gerson
Federal Communicators Network

In 1993, Jim Flyzik, Deputy Assistant Secretary (Information Systems) and Chief Information Officer for the Department of the Treasury, served as Team Leader on Vice President Gore's (then)National Performance Review (NPR) "Reengineering through Information Technology" Team. Now, along with his CIO duties, he is Gore's Access America "champion" for the intergovernmental Public Safety Wireless Network initiative. We interviewed Flyzik recently at Treasury, for an update on the continuing problem of incompatible radio frequencies used by public safety agencies.

The intergovernmental Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) project is in its second year, and progress is being made toward the goals first outlined in the 1993 NPR technology report. But even in this short time the "interoperability" issue has grown bigger. It's a pressing problem for local, state, and federal governments. Most public safety agencies are still using tactical land mobile radio systems that can't talk to each other because they operate in different parts of the radio spectrum. They are duplicative and costly. Beyond that, they are downright dangerous, because all too often--in the crisis situations that firemen and police and emergency medical teams have to deal with--if getting the message through is extremely difficult, and precious minutes are lost, so are people's lives.

Talking with Jim Flyzik, Vice President Gore's champion for the Access America PSWN program, you immediately sense urgency. Flyzik doesn't talk about interoperable networks as something we "ought" to be doing. He tells you right off, regarding moving now toward shared systems, "It's the only choice we have!"

Radio Frequency Has Not Caught on as an Exciting Issue

Somehow--unlike the Y2K problem, which has attracted national media attention--radio frequency incompatibility among the thousands of public safety agencies across the country has not caught on as a very exciting issue. To people on the scene of disasters, it is a real and troublesome challenge. But most of us do not realize what can happen when incompatible systems block communication across jurisdictions. A recent National Telecommunications and Information Administration report about the TWA Flight 800 crash is enlightening:

     "During the search and rescue operations, Federal, State and local agencies alike needed to communicate with each other in order to carry out an effective response to the disaster. The United States Coast Guard, one of the primary public safety agencies involved and the first on-scene responder, needed to communicate with State and local entities, as well as the Federal agencies involved in the recovery efforts. Public safety agencies had to resort to a make-shift solution to attain interoperability by handing out common radios so that all of the agencies involved were able to interoperate and coordinate efforts."

Obviously public safety needs must be met, if not by 2000, certainly before 2005, when digitized (narrowband) mobile radio becomes the mandated norm. Considering the multiplicity of actions required for such a change: reallocations of spectrum by the FCC, studies and surveys to be made and analyzed, standards setting, funding to be battled for, and the resolution of many questions by continual state/local dialogue, Flyzik's eagerness does not seem premature. All of these things take time. And every federal, state, and local public safety entity will need to convert its existing analog equipment to the new technology.

"But we don't want to do individual conversions," Flyzik explained. "We want to manage these conversions so we can go directly to a shared infrastructure --and respond quickly and save lives."

What's the Cost?

How much would it cost? More than $18 billion is invested in equipment for federal, state, and local law enforcement/public safety systems now. Replacing current systems on a one-to-one basis would run at least another $18 billion.

The plan is to look for an Administration proposal for budget dollars for the long term, and for grants for state and local governments. "Since everyone has to do it, it will be far less costly to do on a shared basis. We hope to achieve savings and redirect them into the program to finance the out year commitments. If we could go from hundreds of antennas on metropolitan rooftops down to just a few (they pay $1000 a month to lease the space for each antenna) that would amount to considerable savings."

Treasury and Justice, with the largest components of law enforcement (Secret Service, Customs Service, FBI, etc.) are the clearing house for all government agencies on behalf of the federal government. The third major player, Commerce, is interested in the allocation of frequencies, managing the critical radio frequency spectrum resource, setting service rules, assigning licenses. The Federal Communications Commission agrees generally with PSWN goals. Speaking in Orlando FL on September 23, Commissioner Susan Ness said, "We need to ensure that adequate spectrum is available for public safety purposes..." But she also reminded her listeners that "today's useable bands of spectrum are limited in supply, and can sustain only a finite number of users at any one time and at any one place." [The radio spectrum resource is indeed finite, but as technology advances, it will be possible to squeeze more users into the pipeline.]

Major obstacles, according to Flyzik, are standards issues that need to be resolved, awareness, and, as with any technology program, some industry issues. We need to move to a standards-based market, he said. And true awareness of the length of time, as well as dollars, it will take to make interoperable systems a reality would move things along a lot faster. "It does seem that all the money is going into the Y2K, because people feel that is imminent, but see this problem as five years out," he commented.

Public Safety Wireless Needs Are Finally Gaining Support

Public safety wireless needs are finally, however, gaining support in official circles. Besides the Federal Law Enforcement Wireless Users Group (FLEWUG), the PSWN Executive Committee is made up of top management executives from DEA, the FBI, the U. S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, Customs Service, and an Associate U. S. Attorney General, State and metropolitan Police and Fire Chiefs and State directors of Public Safety. And State and local officials from all over the country have told Flyzik of their enthusiasm for shared systems. At a recent public safety symposium in Sacramento, he was the keynote speaker. "They filled the room to overflowing -- state and local chiefs, people from Governors' offices." They came up to talk to him: "We're ready to go--tell us how to do it and help us get the funds!" The state and local people, Flyzik feels, are now seeing that this is something that is critically important to the country.

His response? "Let's do it together, and get it right, this time!"

Author Sareen Gerson from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is a member of the Federal Communicators Network. You may write her at


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