Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nine years later: Towers of Babble

From the The Virginian-Pilot, September 11, 2010

A network that allows public safety agencies to communicate with each other remains one of the most elusive and pressing recommendations from the 9/11 Commission. Nine years after America was attacked, there's no guarantee that such a system will ever come into existence.

As The New York Times reported this week, squabbling over who will control a prime slice of broadband spectrum has left plans for a nationwide system literally up in the air.

The Federal Communications Commission has been pushing an approach that would have commercial companies buy and control the airwaves and build fourth-generation wireless networks on it. During emergencies, police and fire and emergency personnel would get control of the network, effectively taking over the airwaves to coordinate interagency communication.

Those public safety groups, however, insist such a network is unlikely to have the capacity needed during an emergency, meaning it could fail under heavy use and put lives at risk. They want exclusive control of the entire section of the spectrum, and they're lobbying Congress for it.
It has been six years since the 9/11 Commission issued its massive report, which included recommendations to improve the response to catastrophes on the scale of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

That makes the prolonged delay over divvying up broadband spectrum and developing a nationwide interoperable communication system all the more frustrating, particularly for commission members. Two years ago, after an FCC auction failed to draw sufficient commercial bids, the commission's vice chairman told The Washington Post: "I've lost patience... The slowness of this just indicates a lack of urgency and a lack of concern about human survival and human life if a disaster strikes."

The unhurried pace is indeed disappointing, especially given the urgency of the problem. During the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York nine years ago, first responders found themselves - for a variety of reasons - unable to communicate with each other. People died as a result.

There has been some progress that will help in future emergencies.

Today, many police and fire departments, including those in South Hampton Roads, use plain English on their radios instead of arbitrary, agency-specific codes.

They have developed interoperable regional systems and standard operating procedures to communicate during emergencies, and they've held joint training to prepare for hurricanes, plane crashes and other disasters.

Such changes have helped communities become better prepared, but each would be more valuable if they were part of a system that permits local, state and federal agencies from Virginia to Oregon to communicate and coordinate in a large-scale emergency.

Officials have said construction of the network could take as much as a decade. That means if Congress has any intention of seeing the system in place before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it must act now to settle the debate over access to the broadband spectrum.