Congress seeks improved disaster communications

The country needs a more comprehensive alert system and better protocols to redirect emergency calls during crises that disable public-safety dispatch centers, the Federal Communications Commission’s chairman said.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin added that first responders need interoperable and mobile wireless communications systems that they can rapidly deploy anywhere. That includes smart radios, which users can easily tune to different frequencies and formats. The communications industry has been working on such devices, called software-defined radios, but has developed only prototypes.

Martin testified last week before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is holding hearings on communicating during disasters. Senators quizzed Martin on the FCC’s role following Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast late last month and knocked out communications and power infrastructures, and how the federal government can prepare in the future.

In rescue and recovery efforts, first responders have had to bring their own mobile communications equipment, and vendors had to deal with flooding and security issues in establishing communications networks for them.

Congress is looking into improving communications during crises. Several bills have been proposed that would create backup emergency communications systems, improve public safety networks’ resilience, provide sufficient spectrum for first responder use and enable 911 dispatch centers -- known as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) -- to locate residents using voice-over-IP (VOIP) systems.

Martin said a comprehensive alert system should incorporate the Internet and other technologies so officials can reach many people simultaneously. He said states and municipalities must also improve the redundancy of communications that serve PSAPs.

Available technology can redirect calls from one center to another, he said. But in the Gulf Coast region, where 38 PSAPs went down, the calls did not go anywhere because protocols weren’t in place, Martin said. All but three PSAPs had been restored as of last week.

He also said first responders need a seamless interoperable system that provides voice and data communications, which means there should be sufficient spectrum available. Martin said they can’t solely rely on terrestrial communications anymore and should take advantage of IP-based technology.

Several telecommunications representatives said they intend to rebuild the Gulf Coast with state-of-the-art technology.

William Smith, chief technology officer at BellSouth, said the company plans to rebuild the infrastructure with VOIP and fiber-optic systems. In the meantime, they’re trying to restore service for police, fire and emergency services before implementing state-of-the-art facilities that use packet-based and fiber-based communications.

Hossein Eslambolchi, president of AT&T’s Global Networking Technology Services and AT&T Labs, said the company has been transforming its network to an IP infrastructure for many years.

“But clearly New Orleans offers a green field approach as we try to rebuild the infrastructure itself,” he said. This includes fiber-optic cables, wireless technology, ad hoc mesh networks and use of cognitive or smart radios.

However, he said, power is the most dominant factor in communications, and a sophisticated system for protecting that infrastructure must precede new technology.

Jeffrey Citron, chairman and chief executive officer of Vonage, which provides broadband telephony service, said officials should not favor one provider over another in rebuilding the communications infrastructure. Instead, they should foster the deployment of all types of technologies.

“A robust communications infrastructure needs wired networks, such as cable and [Digital Subscriber Line,] as well as wireless networks, such as cell towers, Wi-Fi and WiMax, and satellite,” he said. “As policy-makers and as entrepreneurs, we’ll never know exactly which facilities will be available in a moment of crisis. But a range of redundant infrastructure improves our chances of having something that works.”

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