9/11 workers on right wavelength

Answering the Call: Communications Lessons Learned from the Pentagon Attack

A new report reveals that most local public safety agencies initially responding

to the attack on the Pentagon Sept. 11 had little difficulty communicating

with one another.

The report, "Answering the Call: Communications Lessons Learned from

the Pentagon Attack," was released Feb. 1 by the Public Safety Wireless

Network (PSWN) Program, a joint initiative sponsored by the Justice and

Treasury departments. The program's goal is to help the public safety community

improve wireless radio interoperability.

Interoperability has been a major focus among public safety organizations

and governments for years, but has become a national focus following the

Sept. 11 attacks. Many public officials have said first responders in many

jurisdictions cannot communicate with one another because many operate on

different radio frequencies.

During the Pentagon attack, 50 local, state and federal public safety

agencies responded to the incident, resulting in about 900 radio users,

the report said. Initial responders, led by those from Arlington County,

Va., had no problem establishing communications at the scene due to "the

high-level of regional coordination and agreements previously established,"

it said.

Robert Lee Jr., a PSWN program manager representing the Justice Department,

said part of the success stemmed from the problems first responders had

when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and into

the Potomac River in 1982.

He said several public safety agencies, including the National Park

Police, Washington, D.C., fire and police, Arlington County rescue units

and authorities from then-Washington National Airport, were "dissatisfied

with their ability to communicate" and set about making changes.

"Cooperation is the key," Lee said. "If you can't get people to sit

down and talk with each other, they'll never come up with technological

and procedural solutions to meet the challenge."

The report found that:

* Regional planning and coordination efforts produced procedures for

mutual-aid interoperability for local jurisdictions.

* Local agencies regularly rehearse mass casualty incidents.

* Agencies had early establishment of and strict adherence to a formal

incident command system.

* Responders found that their private land mobile radio systems were

the most reliable form of communication.

However, the report noted that as state and federal agencies, which

are considered secondary responders, increased their presence at the site,

"no means of direct interoperability was immediately available" for them.

It also said the level of interoperability necessary to support these secondary

responders had not been documented.

Lee said the PSWN report, which contains a number of recommendations,

should be used to see how communities and regions can increase their interoperability.

"In the emergency services, stress is inevitable," he said. "It's really,

really comforting to responding entities that they have plans and procedures

to fall back on and they have appropriate equipment to meet the challenges.

If we don't plan ahead of time . it makes it all the more frightening for

responders and all the more confusing for the initial ones to help."

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