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A Better Communications System for Emergency Workers

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A Better Communications System for Emergency Workers

Katrina overwhelmed the nation’s complex communications system, raising serious questions about whether federal and local governments need new powers to organize a rapid response by the wireless, wire, cable, satellite, and broadcast industries. Moreover, it seems clear that first responders ought to have a resilient, mobile wireless data network that they can share.

Just as the government has known about the vulnerability of the levees in New Orleans to a severe hurricane, so too has the problem of incompatible and ineffective communications for first responders and emergency personnel been well documented most recently by the 9/11 Commission. Tragically, while little progress has been made in four years, the solution is also well-known. Just visit your neighborhood Starbucks.

The United States today has no system in place that allows emergency response personnel to communicate reliably and effectively in a crisis. For years, government studies have pointed out how incompatible and ineffective the communications systems used by emergency responders are. An April, 2004 report by the Government Accounting Office put it starkly: “The wireless communications used today by many public officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and other public safety agencies do not provide [the ability] �??? to effectively carry out their normal duties and respond to extraordinary events.”

We saw the dire effects of this failure to properly equip our emergency responders had in New York City in 2001, when the police and fire departments in New York lost situational awareness because they could not talk with each other. Yet there is no excuse that our emergency responders should be unable to communicate when they are in the field performing life-threatening and life-saving work under the most difficult of situations.

Fixing this is not difficult. There are some concrete steps the United States can and should take. The important thing to understand is that we know how to do this. The pieces to put together a national emergency response system are well understood.

We start with WiFi, the immensely popular wireless standard. If you don’t use it, you’ve probably seen it: people with laptops in airports or cafes checking their email. Most of our broadcasting spectrum, which is coordinated by the Federal Communications Commission, is allocated to fixed purposes, such as a particular TV station, cell phone provider or various government purposes.

WiFi started as an experiment, but has been wildly popular. And, unlike a television station or other spectrum licensee, WiFi can be used by shared by many different users. It is defined as a series of access specifications instead of an absolute grant to one user.

There is a second characteristic that WiFi has, which is also shared by the Internet. Both are systems designed to operate successfully even if many of the nodes of the network fail—the Internet actually has it’s roots in Department of Defense research into fail-safe networks in various doomsday scenarios.

The United States should allocate a part of our spectrum to emergency responders. While there is a huge debate in Washington about how to divvy up the spectrum among the many competing uses, in this case there is no reason for any debate. Congress can authorize the FCC to dedicate a chunk of spectrum to an emergency response system. It is a no-brainer that would not significantly impact the broadcast or telecommunications industries or existing government users.

After allocating spectrum, the government should specify the access mechanism. There is nothing to invent here: something like WiFi and the Internet is the obvious solution. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Instead, the government should simply ask the standards bodies that define specifications for WiFi and the Internet to specify which of their existing standards need to be used. The important point is that any standards used should be free from any patent, or licensing considerations that would hinder open source development efforts.

What could you do with this spectrum? A look in any PC magazine or at the thousands of blogs devoted to hardware shows that a lot of what you want out of an emergency response system already exists in the wild on the Internet. Indeed, when the city of New Orleans needed to restablish communication with the outside world, a PC and an Internet phone call were the Mayor’s only communications link.

Using standard off-the-shelf technology, emergency responders can receive pages, talk to each other, do simple text messaging, transmit photographs, and retrieve maps. Responders could easily be equipped with devices as simple as their existing pagers to the most sophisticated HazMat analysis. The Department of Homeland Security can take the recommendations of the standards bodies that established WiFi and the Internet and then designate a procedure, such as an automated on-line testing suite, that allows industry vendors to demonstrate compliance with the appropriate standards for a particular device.

How much would we need for such a system? Let’s start with the folks in the field. The RAND corporation, in a 2003 study, estimated that there are 1.1 million firefighters (of which 75% are volunteers), 500,000 emergency medical responders, and 800,000 law enforcement officers. Add to that 500,000 members of the National Guard, and another 300,000 other essential workers, and we’re talking 3.2 million emergency responders in the United States.

The basic task is straightforward: every single emergency responder in the United States should be equipped with a simple Emergency Transponder (ET) that can receive pages and allow at least voice and text communications with other workers. We think such a device could be built for as little as $150. It would be a trivial task for the government to offer a $150 ET Rebate on the first 3.2 million devices.

WiFi devices can communicate directly with each other, something known as “ad hoc” or “grid” networking. That’s a really good thing. Even if the central infrastructure is gone, two people can talk directly to each other.

But, a robust and stable communications network also has a series of central nodes that stabilize and strengthen the network. With the WiFi architecture, the most effective way to do this is with mobile or portable antennas. These are known as routers or repeaters, and in the case of the ET system consists of an antenna and a computer, forming a mobile base station that can be placed in a car, helicopter, airplane, fire truck, ambulance, blimp or be portable as part of a fireman’s kit. When a disaster hits, as soon as people and equipment get mobilized, the communications network gets stronger. We think two million vehicles could be equipped in short order.

A 1999 study by the government’s Public Safety Wireless Network, since subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security, said it would cost $18 billion to equip every emergency responder with a compatible radio system. But technology has changed since 1999. Preparedness, however, has not changed. A 2004 Council on Foreign Relations report by the task force on Emergency Responders, chaired by Warren B. Rudman, had the subtitle “Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared.” The report pointed out that, among other evidence of unpreparedness, “fire departments across the country have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift.”

There is no need to study this issue further. Its time to act. The private sector is agile enough and competitive enough to do this, and an ET Rebate program costing less than $1 billion for the entire country would quickly jumpstart the deployment of devices into the field. And there is no reason that such a system can’t be fully deployed by the middle of 2006.

Every day, emergency responders face situations where they cannot communicate with each other. We see the catastrophic results when events like Katrina occur, but firefighters and EMTs and police officers see thiks problem every single day.

An interoperable and dependable emergency communications system is only one of many steps we must take to protect our homeland and respond to national disasters. But it is an essential step that is technologically feasible and should be done now to protect the safety of those who protect the safety of all of us.

Reed E. Hundt served as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993 to 1997. He is an advisor and board member to several technology companies.

Carl Malamud is a Senior Fellow and the Chief Technology Officer of the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.c= For the last two years, he served as a volunteer firefighter in Sixes, Oregon.

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