Police, fire depts. still can't talk

Three years after Sept. 11, emergency radios aren't linked for most first responders.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the NYPD helicopter pilot circling the World Trade Center warned that "large pieces" of the South Tower looked about to topple, the report never got to the firemen inside: Their radios couldn't communicate with those of the police.

It seemed an obvious problem to fix - just as it had after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Yet three years after 9/11, the goal of compatible and adequate communication among the nation's first responders is nearly as remote as ever.

The reason isn't that no one can think of a way to do it. Possible answers range from equipping mobile trucks with patching technology to establishing a nationwide interoperable network for all first responders. The European Union plans to have such a network in place by 2010.

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But while the US is just one nation, it is beset by turf battles on this issue, highlighting the way that even apparently obvious gaps in America's security apparatus can require concerted leadership to fix.

The factors inhibiting better communication among the nation's first responders range from the clout of corporations to concerns among police and fire departments that new systems may have problems of their own.

There are some 60,000 first responder organizations in the United States, and each one purchases its own equipment.

"In order for interoperability to really take hold, you would have to convince each one of those procurement officers that interoperability is a good thing," says Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a public policy expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

Nor are states eager to have Washington mandate a solution, especially one that could require more than $15 billion in local spending on new equipment. Neighboring communities that may need to cooperate in an emergency often start out with vastly different capacities to fund new equipment. Some first responders worry that a fully integrated system could compromise command-and-control in an emergency, by fostering a cacophony of instructions.

Thus, while the need is clear, the way to a solution is not.

Some states and cities are proceeding to address the problem locally, but the goal of a fully interoperable national system will take help from Washington.

The release of the final 9/11 commission report is giving this effort new momentum. The commission describes the inability to communicate as a "critical element" at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Somerset County, Pa., crash sites. It recommends that Congress expedite the increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.

One key is to set a date for the availability of new spectrum, backers say. It gives states and cities an incentive to move more quickly on the investments in new equipment needed for interoperability, especially in urban areas where the volume of users can quickly overload the system in an emergency, as it did in New York and the Pentagon on 9/11.

"With a date certain, public safety officials and advanced wireless providers waiting for broadcasters to vacate the 700 MHz band would know when they will be able to begin operations," said Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in Senate testimony last week. The FCC proposes setting that date at Jan. 1, 2009 - three years later than legislation now pending in Congress.

Already, that recommendation is running up against tough headwinds from bureaucratic and private interests in Washington.

"There is no lobbying group more powerful than the National Association of Broadcasters, and they have chosen to delay the transition to digital," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

In addition, the FCC is opting for a hands-off approach by encouraging the private sector to take the initiative in ensuring preparedness in an emergency. Critics say it's a case of political inertia where action is needed.

"There are lots of workarounds here, but somebody has got to require them to be done, and that's got to be the federal government or we will have differential standards among cities," says Rand Beers, a national security adviser for Democrat John Kerry's presidential campaign. "This administration is not disposed to move on this, because it means a growth in government, and it means there will have to be some standards setting or regulation."

The Department of Homeland Security is tallying the nation's current wireless interoperable communications capabilities . But the survey is not expected to be completed until July 2005.

Recently, the DHS announced that it is setting up an Office for Interoperability and Compatibility to help coordinate the federal response.

Meanwhile, some states like Maryland have been working to create systems that talk to one another. "What we most need from Washington is more public safety frequencies," says Tom O'Reilly, administrator for the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety. New Jersey is moving ahead with pilot projects in cities like Camden, to help first responders communicate in the case of a mass evacuation.

Mr. O'Reilly says that the state is looking for low-cost solutions that will enable better communication, while avoiding the danger of becoming a tower of babel, in which the chain of command breaks down in emergencies. "There is a danger: You don't want everyone talking to everyone else all the time," he adds.

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