Southwest Border Communications Working Group Continues to Address Border Communications Challenges


Author: Southwest Border Communications Working Group

The Southwest Border Communications Working Group (SWBCWG) met in Sacramento, California, on May 23-24, 2017.  The meeting focused on public safety interoperability efforts and California’s statewide emergency response/preparedness capabilities and activities, including tribal coordination.  Participants also discussed:

  • Challenges with reuse of decommissioned land mobile radio equipment
  • Cross-border web-based situational awareness environments
  • Regional interoperability gap analysis
  • FirstNet
  • Federal Partnership for Interoperable Communications (FPIC) activities involving encryption, and
  • Cross-border spectrum and interference issues

Web-based Cross Border Communication

The Santa Cruz County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) piloted a web-based Emergency Operations Center (WebEOC) capability to build hazardous material (HAZMAT) capacity in the Arizona-Sonora border region.  The proof-of-concept effort was funded through a grant from the U.S. Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) and Mexico’s Comisión de Cooperación Ecológica Fronteriza (COCEF) to improve cross-border communications and provide training and access to web-based incident response and situational awareness tools. 

The concept for the project originated from a 2012 train derailment incident in Nogales, Arizona, where two tank cars broke away and rolled through border gate into Mexico.  One car contained sulfuric acid and crashed next to a tributary, creating a hazardous material situation.  It took 2.5 days to manage the incident including identifying the derailment location, collecting information, and identifying potential environmental impacts.  The Arizona OEM identified WebEOC as a means to provide more cohesive communications, situational awareness, and standardized response and mitigation operations. 

The Arizona OEM conducted administrator and user training for federal, state, and local U.S. and Mexican personnel.  Operating in both English and Spanish, weekly practice sessions ensured users could perform individual WebEOC tasks on both sides of the border.  To support implementation, over 70 participants took Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Emergency Management Course at the Emergency Management Institute, including representatives from Mexico participating virtually through WebEOC.  Three major simulations were conducted to address a fire at a port of entry, a crude oil spill on the Colorado River, and a major flooding event.

Results have already been realized. For example, when Tropical Storm Newton hit in September 2016, Arizona OEM leadership was able to remotely manage continuing operations and make informed decisions for all impacted jurisdictions—even across the border—using WebEOC. 

Special Focus Group Update

As a result of discussions during the January in-person meeting, SWBCWG participants identified the need to establish a special Focus Group to identify and document key voice and data communications operability and interoperability gaps, challenges, and opportunities throughout the Southwest Border Region.  Data collection efforts were coordinated through the nine Customs and Border Protection sectors in the region to support the identification of key trends and issues.

June Webinar - Overview of the SAFECOM Nationwide Survey (SNS)

The SWBCWG June 27th webinar provided an overview of the SNS, which aims to collect public safety communications data from federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial (F/S/L/T/T) governments. The SNS data collected will support development of the National Communications Baseline Assessment (NCBA).  Responses to the SNS will be used to drive emergency communications policies, programs, and funding vehicles, as well as support production of the NCBA.  The SNS will also help Statewide Interoperability Coordinators fulfill their roles to improve and support interoperable communications at the state and local levels.

The SNS will contain approximately 37 questions and take around 35 minutes to complete using the web-based SurveyMonkey® tool.  The SNS will target all levels of government and all agencies that deal with emergency communications across the disciplines of fire/emergency medical services (EMS), law enforcement (LE), and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs)/911.  SAFECOM anticipates receiving approval from the Office of Management and Budget to distribute the survey in September. 

SWBCWG participants were encouraged to fully participate in the SNS and to help socialize the survey and assessment process through their respective networks, and other outreach methods.  Results gathered from public safety practitioners in the southwest border region will be useful in depicting an accurate picture of the emergency communications landscape nationwide.

Next In-Person Meeting

The next in-person SWBCWG meeting is scheduled for September 12-13 in Weslaco, Texas, at the Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Headquarters.  All those interested in attending should RSVP via SWBCWG@hq.dhs.gov.

To learn more about current SWBCWG activities, to get involved, and/or receive regular updates, please reach out via email to SWBCWG@hq.dhs.gov.

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