Even as Hurricane Rita loomed before the Gulf Coast, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin told a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation yesterday that the nation’s emergency responders require a mobile, wireless system that enables them to communicate with one another in times of crisis anywhere in the country.
Four years after 9/11, emergency workers and public safety officials had severe communications problems after electric power failed and telecommunication was effectively knocked out in the Katrina disaster areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. With more than three million customer telephone lines knocked down, significant damage to on-the-wireline switching centers and to the lines used to connect buildings and customers to the network, 38 9-1-1 call centers down, and more than 1,000 cell sites out of service, more than 20 million telephone calls did not go through the day after the hurricane, Martin told the hearing.
The new emergency responder system should be “an interoperable, mobile wireless communications system that can
be rapidly deployed anywhere in the country,” Martin said. “It must allow different organizations from different jurisdictions to communicate with each other immediately… This requires that there be sufficient spectrum devoted to these purposes. And, equally importantly, it requires that first responders have equipment capable of operating on multiple frequencies in multiple formats, so that different systems can connect with each other… Properly implemented, a system with adequate spectrum and ‘smart radios’ would help to ensure that both data and voice are transmitted between agencies instantly, replacing multiple, lengthy phone calls to multiple agencies.”
He added, “If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications. When radio towers are knocked down, satellite communications are, in some instances, the most effective means of communicating.”
Gerald R. Faulhaber, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former FCC chief economist, told the Washington Post that “the politics of control” at the local level was one of the greatest obstacles to more effective crisis communications. “The police chiefs fight tooth and nail to maintain control over their radios and their channels. The fire chiefs fight tooth and nail to maintain control over their radios,” he said. “Who is going to take on the police chief? Who is going to take on the fire chief?”
David Aylward, director of non-profit first-responder communications advocacy group ComCARE, told the Post more could be done to make better use of existing networks. “What isn’t years away is connecting agencies together and backing it up with redundant satellite and satellite links. That could be done in six months, and it’s a travesty that it wasn’t done and that it isn’t done,” he said.
With the tragic results of Katrina and 9/11 so evident, and now, finally, with the FCC speaking so clearly to the Senate on these matters, the time is now to ram through the local “politics of control” logjam.