Fixing a communications breakdown
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Jul 22, 2002
Shortly after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon Sept. 11, the Arlington County, Va., Fire Department led a response and recovery effort involving 50 public safety agencies from neighboring Virginia communities, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government.
Numerous police, fire and rescue units quickly established interoperable voice radio communications, largely because the region had prepared for such an event during the past 20 years. In all, there were about 900 radio users, many of them capable of talking to one another with radios built to work on the 800 MHz band of the radio spectrum.
"When the big one occurred on Sept. 11, everybody who came on site with a radio was able to come on the Arlington radio system," said the assistant fire chief of Arlington County, John White, a 23-year department veteran who runs the technical services division.
"I try to put myself back in the frame of mind when we were on a VHF high-band radio system with two channels," he said. "What would we have done in September had we had that system still in place? We would have had problems, and I know that that is still the norm in a lot of areas in the United States."
Although the lack of interoperability — the ability of first responders and others from different agencies or jurisdictions to communicate with one another — has been a major obstacle for the public safety community for decades, the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks raised the issue to a national level never before seen.
"I think the idea of interoperability is on the lips and in the minds of a lot of important people right now," said Robert Lee Jr., a program manager at the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN). "And so their talking about it is the first step to arriving at solutions." The Justice and Treasury departments created PSWN six years ago to help educate and serve as a resource on the issue.
As the threat of more attacks looms, officials on Capitol Hill and at the White House have pledged to help the nation's first responders — police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel — with more resources for not only disasters, but also day-to-day emergencies.
Public safety officials — who have been calling for more space on the radio spectrum, increased funding and better technologies and standards — say they are encouraged by the increased attention given to interoperability. But they caution that it is a complex issue with significant hurdles that will take time to overcome.
From Analog to Digital
For decades, local public safety agencies acquired land mobile radio communications that are largely incompatible with one another. The problem was that manufacturers did not develop systems based on common standards.
"The way the vendor community operated in this area, there was a marketing goal not to facilitate interoperability with competitor systems," said John Cohen, a former police officer and federal agent and now president of PSComm LLC, which offers consulting services in this area.
"The reason is there is a value proposition if you, as a large radio provider, can say, 'I can provide interoperability across all these agencies, but you have to be using my product,' " Cohen said.
Change was nearly impossible because those radio systems, being analog, were hardwired to work independently.
That poses a problem when multiple agencies respond to a disaster. For example, after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, numerous first responder agencies could not communicate with radios and instead employed runners to carry messages back and forth, sources said.
Public safety agencies have not done themselves any favors, observers say, by allowing turf wars to hinder coordination of communications systems. "And that is probably the most important [factor], because without bringing people together to talk about the problem, we're not likely to have solutions that will be useful to everyone and accepted by everyone," Lee said.
Several states and regions are planning or developing systems that will reduce those problems. Most initiatives involve digital trunked systems, which improve the capacity and management of radio traffic. And many of the systems use channels in the 800 MHz band, which is allocated for public safety use by the Federal Communications Commission.
States or regions often decide to develop new systems because their analog systems are outdated and in need of repair. But then, as now, disasters often provided the impetus for change.
Ohio, for example, began developing an 800 MHz digital wireless system more than two years ago. Development of the Multi-Agency Radio Communications System (MARCS) was precipitated by two natural disasters, as well as a prison uprising about a decade ago that resulted in several deaths, said Darryl Anderson, MARCS project manager.
In each instance, several responding public safety agencies had little ability to communicate with one another, he said.
After several years of studies, discussions and preparatory work, the state began working on the $272 million MARCS project, which will be completed by 2004, according to Anderson, a 30-year state police veteran. The system will provide mobile radio coverage across 97.5 percent of every county, with a total of 201 radio tower sites constructed in the geographically diverse state.
The system will serve 12 state agencies and numerous local agencies with a maximum of 50,000 to 60,000 voice users, he said, with local agencies paying monthly user fees to tie into the system.
The next step, Anderson said, is to link MARCS with systems in other states, including neighboring Michigan. Since 1995, officials there have been developing the state's own 800 MHz wireless system, which will be completed this fall.
Michigan officials studied the issue for a decade before embarking on the $200 million project, said Harry Warner, manager of the state's 800 MHz project and assistant division director for the Michigan State Police.
The state police, who had been operating on a low-band radio system since 1944, had been having problems with radio congestion in some regions and, as communities expanded into rural areas, dead spots in others.
Like Ohio and Michigan, several communities in the Washington, D.C., area began working on 800 MHz digital systems following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River in 1982.
"Oh, it was a disastrous day, and nobody could talk to one another," recalled Alan Caldwell, who was a firefighter on the scene.
"Elected officials said, 'We cannot have this happen again.' And so what was put together and begun back then has become a very, very successful program," said Caldwell, director of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). "And the proof of the pudding was [that] when the airplane went into the Pentagon, all the fire units were able to talk to one another."
But Harlin McEwen, a former police chief and FBI agent now working for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, worries that interoperability is a symptom of a larger problem with communications, not the problem itself.
"So what we're trying to do is to impress upon the people in Washington, particularly because right now this is a big buzzword, that interoperability should be a good byproduct of a good local or state system, and that it should not be the primary focus," he said.
A Hot Commodity
But even as public safety communications are on the verge of improving, officials in many states are running into trouble with the economics of the radio spectrum. The first issue is a problem of supply and demand.
The 800 MHz band, which is used by cellular services as well as public safety communications, is getting congested, and this has begun to interfere with first responder communications. Agencies are looking at other slices of the spectrum, including the 700 MHz band, but that in turn creates more interoperability problems, experts say.
"The broad issue is that public safety operates in 11 different portions of the radio spectrum," said PSWN's Lee. "Equipment doesn't usually cross from one portion of the spectrum to the other. So we have to cross those borders in order to be interoperable."
The need for a bigger piece of the spectrum for public safety emerged as a major concern of the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC). The FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) formed the committee to study the issue.
In a Sept. 11, 1996, report — exactly five years before the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil — PSWAC recommended that four channels in the 700 MHz band, now occupied by TV broadcasters, be reallocated to public safety agencies. A year later, Congress passed a law authorizing the FCC to assign the channels.
However, TV broadcasters have until Dec. 31, 2006, to move, and that depends on the saturation of the high definition TV market in the country.
"Now you see that's a date that means nothing," McEwen said. "Congress said that they have to be out of there if there was an 85 percent saturation of use of HDTV by that time. Well, there isn't even 10 percent. There isn't even 5 percent and nothing's happening. It isn't moving at all."
To close the loophole, several House legislators have introduced a bill, H.R. 3397, setting the 2006 deadline in stone. If the bill passes, the FCC would allocate usage, which is time-consuming.
"But the fact of the matter is if we got that 24 MHz of 700 spectrum tomorrow, it would take us several years to be able to implement," McEwen said of the proposed FCC public spectrum allocation. "I mean, companies are just now starting to announce equipment that will be able to work in that band. I mean, there wasn't any."
But such issues are moot to many public safety agencies that are struggling to find money for the upgrades.
Most states have no dedicated funding source for communications and interoperability, according to officials, which reflects a low priority among lawmakers.
And the situation has been exacerbated by the slumping economy during the past year, with an overwhelming majority of states experiencing severe budget shortfalls, said Cheryl Runyon, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"You're looking at everything you have," she said. "Could you use your tobacco settlement money for this? And so this has been a difficult situation, because folks don't know what they have in terms of other resources.... Almost all the rainy day funds have already been used."
But that is changing as the issue slowly gains importance.
Minnesota officials, for example, are planning to add an excise fee to people's telephone bills to help pay for improved communications in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. Runyon said other counties could impose a $2 to $4 surcharge on homeowner and business insurance policies, as Florida did in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 for a disaster mitigation fund.
"Those funds have allowed the state and their emergency management agency to make grants to local communities in what they need in trading in equipment," she said. "If you identify you have an interoperability problem, and you do need to set up better communications because of natural disasters and man-made disasters or something along those lines, then you can use those funds."
IAFC's Caldwell said fire services are particularly sensitive to the funding issue. Seventy-five percent of the nation's 26,000 fire departments are composed of volunteers, meaning that of the 1.1 million firefighters, about 800,000 are volunteers.
"And really, quite frankly, funding is an issue more for the fire service than it is for metropolitan police or sheriffs, just because of that volunteer issue," he said.
Fire departments are getting help from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, now in its second year. The program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Fire Administration, could give as much as $900 million to provide departments with equipment and training. FEMA provided $100 million in fiscal 2001 and $360 million in fiscal 2002.
Help on the Way
The events of Sept. 11 may change how public safety agencies deal with those difficulties, because they are widely viewed as the first responders when it comes to homeland security. That shift appears to have fostered a greater cooperative spirit among all levels of government.
At the least, federal legislators and policy-makers seem to understand that first responders need better and more reliable communications technologies, which often serve as lifelines to them. Public safety officials say the time is ripe to advance the cause with Congress and the Bush administration, whether it's to address grants, training, emerging technologies and standards, or spectrum problems.
Activity is occurring on several fronts.
The Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, in partnership with several other federal agencies and committees, has been developing technologies for both short- and long-term interoperability solutions since 1998.
And just last week, President Bush released a national strategy for homeland security that calls for better information sharing and communications interoperability. The proposed Homeland Security Department would develop a national emergency communications plan to establish protocols, processes and national standards for technology purchases, the report said. Federal grants to state and local agencies would be tied to that plan, requiring "all applications to demonstrate progress in achieving interoperability with other emergency response bodies."
And although it's not entirely clear just how the proposed Homeland Security Department would work with first responders, it appears that FEMA would serve as the point agency for them.
FEMA, which provides assistance and relief to local responders during disasters, will oversee a relatively new federal initiative called the Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications program, or Project SafeCom.
The program's objective is to speed implementation of public safety communications at all governmental levels, including providing guidelines and best practices to ensure interoperability.
"We recognize that we can't force local governments to discard their technologies wholesale," said Ronald Miller, FEMA's chief information officer. "They can't afford that."
Funding seems to be one area where the federal government could help.
Officials say many local and state governments are looking to the federal government for help. Part of the $3.5 billion proposed by Bush for first responders is earmarked for local agencies to improve communications, but that is "iffy," McEwen said.
Right now, Congress is focusing on a supplemental appropriations bill, H.R. 4775, authorizing FEMA to disburse $115 million specifically for interoperable communications equipment and also funnel $85 million to a Community Oriented Policing Services program. The bill is in conference between the House and Senate.
PSWN estimates that it may cost $18 billion to replace the existing infrastructure. "That's an estimate that we did about two years ago and that was our best estimate at replacement, but just replacing everything doesn't guarantee interoperability," Lee said. "You still have to plan things right."
But McEwen doesn't agree with that figure. "There are lots of systems out there that are quite good that work quite well," he said. "What we're talking about are the ones that don't work."
Federal officials and elected representatives appear to be listening, several observers say.
Ohio CIO Greg Jackson said the states and the CIO Council see eye to eye on wireless interoperable communications.
"We're trying to see if there's a way, if there are ways, to make sure that funds flow from the federal down to the locals that we can wrap around parameters for them on how they can spend these funds specifically in wireless communications," said Jackson, who is the National Association of Chief Information Officers' liaison to the CIO Council.