James Schwartz is the Deputy County Manager for Arlington County, VA overseeing public safety and technology. He also serves on the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee and the Advisory Council for the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team at the National Counterterrorism Center.
The Beginnings of Regional Coordination in the DC Area: Schwartz started out as a federal firefighter and then spent 34 years with the Arlington Fire Department. In the 1980s fire services were taking on new missions evolving how they performed emergency medical services and the handling of hazardous materials in addition to their life, safety, and property mission. Then in the mid 1990s, in the wake of the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, Arlington County coordinated with jurisdictions across the DC metro area to write a letter to the President highlighting the metro area’s lack of preparedness to respond to a similar attack. That letter led to the formation of the first non-military counterterrorism team. 9/11 then accelerated this cross-jurisdictional trend and focus on terrorism. This effort became the Metropolitan Medical Response System.
Coordination over Technology: Schwartz highlights the importance of the human element of response in addition to the technology. The relationships and agreements already in place helped to improve the region’s response to 9/11. That response showed how far the region had come since the response to the Air Florida crash in the 1980s. “The obstacles are not with the technology but with the human beings.”
Communications Interoperability: The attempts to improve communications interoperability for first responders started with boxes that could connect disparate devices. It did not operationalize very well. Now with FirstNet public safety has dedicated spectrum that will drive the use of video and data as well. The ecosystem of apps that FirstNet is working on will drive that adoption. Schwartz points out that fire has traditionally been good at adapting and evolving technology for its needs and the new workforce coming in with technology skills will help with that.
Citizen Responders: Schwartz talks about the trend toward citizen bystanders becoming responders during incidents because of their proximity to the incident. FEMA’s You Are the Help Until Help Arrives program is an example of this and Schwartz cites this as a foundation of a resilient community. New technologies and tools will most likely accelerate this trend.
Transformation of Response: Schwartz discuss how sensors, informational awareness, and other technologies will transform the way responders do their jobs. Additionally, Arlington has now combined all of its technology functions across police, fire, and EMS into one organization.
Innovation in Government: Schwartz discusses how innovation must be wired into organizations. This is a challenge in government where most resources go to meet the day to day mission and little is left over for long term thinking and planning. Government needs to focus more on hiring and developing people to think more globally, incorporate data into decision making, and bring in new talent with more tech savvy capabilities. Government must be open to these new skill sets and remaining closed or resistant will turn these people away from government service in general.
With the rise of cloud platforms, government is also moving to sharing technology and resources across missions. The trend is to move away from individual agencies owning everything. Major technology investments are expensive and it is helpful for jurisdictions to be able to share costs. Additionally much of this technology already operates across the region so the ownership should as well.
Schwartz then talks about a project from Virginia Tech that mapped demand for emergency services over time to help the County determine how to better deploy resources. Now a consortium of Northern Virginia jurisdictions is exploring doing this on a ongoing basis.
Another shift is that the government technology office has shifted from serving internal clients to now serving citizens directly. At least 50% of Arlington’s technology office is outwardly focused with payment portals, traffic data, etc. Citizens now expect a more responsive government.
Chief Innovation Officer: Schwartz proposes creating a position reporting to the most senior levels to work across government to spur innovation. Many people solve problems in government for their specific areas but don’t realize that that solution could have wide application across other areas of government.
New Threats: Threats to our communities continue to evolve. We have been worried about international terrorism and now we are also worried about domestic terrorism. Public safety has been having to adapt its role as those threats change.