Call goes out for communications

Local, state and federal government officials—who have been longtime advocates of better wireless interoperability among public safety agencies —are calling for increased efforts in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Make it become the nationwide subject matter it deserves to be," Oklahoma City Councilwoman Ann Simank told attendees of the National Interoperability Forum in Washington, D.C., Oct. 2. Simank recounted the communication problems faced by public safety agencies after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

The two-day forum, jointly hosted by the Public Safety Wireless Network Program (www.pswn.gov) and the National Institute of Justice (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij), was billed as an opportunity for public safety professionals and policy-makers to explore how best to improve wireless communications among firefighters, emergency medical personnel and law enforcement authorities across jurisdictions and all government levels.

Simank said 26,000 people responded to handle the Oklahoma City bombing, "and they all needed so desperately to be able to communicate." Public safety agencies used two radio channels to communicate with each other regarding the incident, and one channel was left open for other incidents. But "no one could talk to each other," she said.

She also said wireless phones were jammed, similar to what callers in New York City and elsewhere experienced following the terrorist attacks. Local telecommunications providers at the time supplied more than 1,000 wireless phones with priority lines to fire, police, EMS, FBI and other emergency personnel. However, she said, many agencies got busy signals and instead used people to shuttle messages back and forth.

A triage center was set up with doctors, nurses and $600,000 of medical equipment, but it was never used because no one knew it was there, she said.

Harlin McEwen, a former Ithaca, N.Y., police chief and member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the level of interoperability has steadily declined over the years. However, he noted that recent efforts are working to change that trend, including such technological advances as digital communications systems that can carry voice, video and data.

He said funding is cited by most public safety agencies and governments as a hindrance to interoperability. Other key challenges include fostering coordination and partnerships, developing technology standards, ensuring communications security, and improving spectrum efficiency and flexibility.

He said he's heard that it would take about $18.3 billion to build an infrastructure to replace the current one, but he said he couldn't substantiate the figure's accuracy.

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