At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) offices responsible for managing emergency communications, the coronavirus pandemic has required officials to adapt natural disaster plans to the unique challenges of the public health crisis, government officials said today.

“Communications need to work the first time, every time. You don’t get a second chance when you’re out there in operation,” Vincent DeLaurentis, acting assistant director for emergency communications at CISA, explained at the August 20 Digital Citizen Summit. He emphasized his office’s responsibility to prepare, introduce, and promote interoperable emergency communications through technology and governance.

As tech advances, DeLaurentis said that his agency also must adapt. Video and other data are becoming important forms of emergency communication, alongside voice communications, so the agency must adapt to provide a seamless flow of information. At the end of last year, DeLaurentis said the agency had just updated the National Emergency Communications Plan to coordinate its key goals across all areas.

“We’re seeing that confluence … the video, data, and also voice communications and we have to make sure that we’re addressing those areas,” he said. “With every capability, with every technology that’s developed, obviously our first responders are national security entities, they get more capability, but it also gets to be more complex because it’s an entire ecosystem.”

DHS Director of Web Communications Matthew Harmon explained that emergency response relies heavily on planning and coordination. When it came to pandemic response, for example, he said that the agency still relied heavily on playbooks of the past that were geared more to responding to natural disasters. Harmon and web communications directors across the Federal space have since set up lanes of information to coordinate the government response.

Although government websites often see a spike in users during crisis, Harmon said that DHS is set up to accommodate all bandwidth fluctuations. “I don’t have to worry about a DHS site crashing due to bandwidth because we’ve got the system set up and, quite frankly, we’re paying money, and probably quite a bit, to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Instead, Harmon and his team are more concerned with making sure that the information is disseminated to everyone in the country that needs it – regardless of WiFi or network status. One way the agency has overcome this in the past is by launching a basic app with information on how to respond to several types of disaster scenarios.

“The idea behind that is you got this all in your hand,” Harmon said. “It doesn’t require a data connection at all. Now, when data connection and the infrastructure starts being built back up … as more bandwidth is there then more functionality comes active on the phone, and you’re able to get more and more information.”

DeLaurentis added that while these tech advancements in the face of a crisis matter, the preparation and guidance before a crisis ultimately drives agency response.

“Where we see that there needs to be a focus is not necessarily on the technology side – obviously that’s a big part of what we do – but it’s the framework around that,” he said. Harmon continued, “What we found out during the pandemic is that prior work, everything that was done, really mitigated the comms challenges associated with the pandemic.”

When the agency did face challenges, such as congestion over voice lines of communications, it was largely planning that helped the agency overcome it. Through a campaign to ensure that priority telecommunications were advanced to the front of the line, his office at CISA was ultimately able to implement priority service provisions to meet the crisis challenge.

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.