Stateline Story

Emergency Communications A Major Problem

  • June 07, 2002
  • By John Nagy

If the United States ever deals with another massive terrorist assault, the survival of thousands may depend upon one wonky, eight-syllable word: Interoperability.

For police officers, firefighters, paramedics and others arriving at the scene of a major disaster, it means being able to speak directly and instantly with people you need. It turns out this is harder than it sounds.

Last September's terrorist attacks raised anew questions asked after the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995: would emergency first responders from dozens of jurisdictions and agencies be able to efficiently exchange information to save lives and prevent destruction?

If an attack happens in Delaware or Michigan, chances the answer is yes. Both states have received high marks for developing statewide wireless networks that let local police, fire, medical and other emergency personnel to talk seamlessly with each other and with state and federal responders.

But anti-terror experts in government and the policy community say it could take as long as 20 years to ensure that every U.S. resident lives in an area where multiple public safety teams can readily communicate.

"We have to be prepared. Communications is the key," says Richard Sheirer, who retired as New York City's Emergency Management director in March.

Robert E. Lee Jr. of the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN), a joint project of the Justice and Treasury Departments, says states are moving more quickly after Sept. 11 to address the problem.

But reallocating radio frequency for stressed public safety systems is a slow and complex process. Setting up the infrastructure to use it properly costs serious money.

Lee says one PSWN estimate, now a few years old, puts the price of a smooth, secure nationwide emergency communications network at $18 billion.

Michigan alone spent $230 million developing its system over the last seven years. The state's outlay doesn't include the $3,000 local subscribers will have to shell out for each piece of handheld or car-mounted radio equipment they'll need to use it.

The money must come from somewhere. One likely source: the $3.5 billion President Bush has proposed for state and local first responder aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The aid would be welcome in Ohio, where officials are committed to a $272 million statewide network scheduled for completion by 2004. Emergency Management Agency director Dale Shipley says state legislators weary of trying to make ends meet question the project's value on fiscal grounds.

"The funding support for the anti-terrorism effort may give us the financial capability to do something. We have known for a long time what we needed to do," Shipley says. Ohio is already talking with its neighbors to see how to hook their systems together.

Spectrum First

Many states that would like their emergency personnel to be able to talk to each other are awaiting the outcome of Washington, D.C. battles over expanding the radio spectrum devoted to public safety.

"To build an interoperable statewide radio system involves a lot of radio spectrum. In many parts of the country, that's not available. Regardless of the amount of funding and planning you may do, if you don't solve the spectrum problem, you're not there yet," says Robert Gurss of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.

Television stations currently block out some of the frequencies that are supposed to be allocated to public safety in more than half of the nation's 84 largest cities. These stations may continue to do so until at least the end of 2006 under current law.

"The mechanics of it are complex but the government issues are quite simple," says legal counsel Juan Otero of the National League of Cities (NLC). Otero wants the "Big Seven" state and local government organizations like NLC and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) to put pressure on Congress to stop "unacceptable" federal and telecommunications industry foot-dragging to clear space for public safety.

NCSL's Task Force on Protecting Democracy made spectrum needs a top priority when it made recommendations to Homeland Security director Tom Ridge last month.

"This is critical. If we don't resolve interoperability issues, people are going to get hurt," the panel's chairman, Sen. Richard Moore of Massachusetts, told Stateline.org.