Many First Responders Still Struggle To Communicate

Jul 13, 2011

After Sept. 11, there were widespread reports that public safety agencies responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center had trouble talking to one another. The problem: incompatible radios.

It was a common challenge among public service agencies nationwide. Different first responders had different radios operating on different frequencies. Billions of dollars later, federal, state and local governments have largely solved that challenge.

But many first responders still lack access to the kind of technology that many Americans carry on their waistbands or bags.

Engine 2

At Engine 2 of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, Deputy Fire Chief Demetrios Vlassopoulos — "Chief V" to his fellow firefighters — points out some of the gear onboard the big red truck. Among the hoses and breathing apparatus are a couple of computers. In the front, mounted next to the driver's seat, is a laptop.

Vlassopoulos says it's connected to the computer aid dispatch system. When Engine 2 gets a call, Vlassopoulos says, "it makes a noise, and the call pops up on the screen, and in a big font they see the location, the type of emergency, all the resources and any other additional information that a caller may have told the call taker — fire in the basement, people trapped. Whatever the notes are, we see that."

The other computer is a tablet that EMTs can take with them on an emergency medical call, like the one that comes in while NPR is there.

"OK, so Engine 2 just got a response," Vlassopoulos says. "There's the run that just came up on the mobile data computer. Engine 2's crew will come out to the piece, verify the address, hit the button that they're in route, and go on the call."

Four firefighters/EMTs come from the recesses of the fire station, quickly board the truck, and it's off.

The D-Block

D.C. firefighters and the district's residents are lucky in a way. Their emergency responders are connected with some pretty sophisticated communications devices. But there is a big problem: Those devices use the same commercial networks as do D.C.-area residents.

And in an emergency, when a lot of people might make cell phone calls, those networks can get pretty crowded.

And it's not just Washington. Jeff Johnson, past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, says first responders "lack the equivalent of the national interstate freeway system. What we have is a bunch of small local roads and streets, and they are built without contemplating what your neighboring community is doing."

Public safety groups want Congress to allocate a now unused chunk of the public airwaves, or spectrum, known as the D-block, on which to build that interstate system. It would give police and fire departments across the country a common set of standards, so that they can all talk to one another in an emergency. And they would have their own dedicated national network, big enough to transmit data and avoid the crowding of other users.

The 9-11 Commission called for giving first responders a bigger piece of the radio spectrum. But as the commission noted in a follow-up report this spring, that recommendation languishes.

The Obama administration supports legislation giving first responders the D-block. Speaking at a conference last month, Vice President Joe Biden called it "our shot to significantly increase the safety and security of the American people. It is as important as anything we could do by a piece of legislation."

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has approved so called D-block legislation, with bipartisan backing. The estimated $12 billion cost of setting up the network would be paid for by auctioning off other parts of the spectrum.

But Republicans in the House are skeptical about the need for additional spectrum and additional funds. At a recent hearing, Oregon Republican Greg Walden said public safety agencies have "more spectrum than the vast majority of wireless providers, who, as it's oft-cited, provide a 16-year-old customer with more capabilities than those available to our first responders."

According to a spokesperson, Walden's subcommittee plans to write a bipartisan bill of its own in the coming weeks to enable an interoperable public safety network. But it's not clear whether lawmakers will be able to agree on a single approach by this fall's 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, as those in the public safety community hope.

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