Fix still years off to get seamless communications for police, fire, others
By JENNIFER C. KERR
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Police and other emergency agencies responding to Hurricane Katrina were plagued by the same communications problems exposed by the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, yet a solution is still considered years away.
At issue is the ability of emergency responders, including firefighters and police, to talk to one another on their radios within the same city, and across multiple cities and regions. "Interoperability" is the technical term.
Tight space on the radio spectrum, bureaucratic disagreements over how to resolve the problem, and the sheer number of local, state and federal agencies involved in disasters have all complicated the search for an answer.
In addition, the problem is an expensive one to address. Highlighting the resources needed, the Homeland Security Department alone has provided more than $1.5 billion since 2001 to cities and states for radios and other equipment _ just for starters.
"It's a big, complex problem," said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
A project in San Diego illustrate how difficult it is getting officials from local, state and federal governments to agree on what will work, and then coordinating efforts to see that the plan is carried out.
It took only about 30 days to put in place the technology needed to improve communications. But it took about two years to get all the agencies _ police, fire, federal officials and others _ to agree to the plan, said David Boyd, the director of interoperability at the Homeland Security Department.
Progress has been made in recent years in the day-to-day radio communications for many cities. But events such as the Sept. 11 attacks and Katrina _ catastrophes that involve many different agencies _ expose the vulnerabilities that remain.
While officials look for better ways to coordinate efforts, there is a move in Congress to free up more radio spectrum to help emergency agencies communicate better in New York and other large metropolitan areas.
Lawmakers this week are expected to consider legislation clearing frequencies in the 700 megahertz range and reserving them for public safety. That part of the spectrum is now used by television broadcasters in many markets for traditional analog signals.
The transfer to public safety has not been easy because it is tied to broadcasters' transition from analog to digital TV. The deadline for that transition is late 2006 at the earliest, though the more likely timetable is not before 2009.
McEwen has pressed lawmakers for the earliest possible date because it will take a few years to get the new equipment in place and clear the way for easier communication among first responders.
Willis Carter, the chief of communications for the Shreveport, La., fire department, has a radio system that allows his firefighters to talk with police, fire and other officials from 50 different agencies in his region of northwestern Louisiana.
But when his firefighters went to New Orleans to help after Katrina hit, they could not communicate with state police in the area. The police radio system used a different type of software.
"If you can't communicate with these various sectors, you have no way of knowing what they're doing," said Carter, first vice president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
A 2004 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found more than 77 percent of the 192 cities surveyed had communication systems that could operate across police and fire departments. About 65 percent could operate among police, firefighters and EMS officials.
The problem is more widespread when the federal government is part of the equation.
More than 80 percent of cities said they did not have two-way radio communications with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, Customs and other federal agencies or bureaus, the mayors' survey said.
Boyd said federal efforts will continue, with the goal of seamless communication during a disaster.
"We caution people that this will take time to get to," he said.
On the Net:
Association of Public Safety Communications Officials: http://www.apcointl.org
International Association of Chiefs of Police: http://www.theiacp.org
Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov