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Among the tragedies of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City were those caused by an almost complete communications meltdown among emergency workers at the scene. While police got the order to evacuate from the World Trade Center’s burning north tower, for instance, firefighters didn’t-and many of them were still inside the tower when it finally collapsed. And that was only one of a number of communication failures that directly or indirectly cost lives. The inability to track personnel, to get pictures from TV news reports or helicopters showing the condition of the towers, and even incompatible radios that couldn’t talk to each other all contributed to the disaster.

Help in improving communications among emergency workers, however, is on the way. Wireless networking technologies being tested and deployed in U.S. communities could solve at least part of the problem. The new networks are providing police and firefighters a way to pass vital data such as video, maps, and photos among themselves quickly and easily. Voice communications may take longer to modernize and integrate, but observers point to progress in an area called “software radio” that will let emergency workers from different agencies talk with each other more easily.

Wireless laptops that display information such as drivers’ records have been a common feature in police cars for at least a decade. But they have typically been connected via cellular networks that deliver data at dial-up-connection speeds or even slower, meaning that they are generally limited to receiving text. But now, faster data networks for police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are giving officials access to more kinds of data and allowing them to share it with each other. Starting in May, for instance, fire, police, and ambulance workers in Garland, TX, will be able to use their existing laptops to send and receive mug shots, fingerprints, live video, medical data, and even floor plans at DSL-like speeds-while racing along at highway speeds.

Garland’s system, developed by partners NexGen City of Richardson, TX, and MeshNetworks of Maitland, FL, uses a technology called mesh networking, in which the laptops instantly become nodes in a network simply by being on and within range of each other. Each laptop routes data to others nearby, so that data crosses the network by hopping along the most efficient path from one laptop to the next. By avoiding the tower-based, hub-and-spoke configuration typical in cellular networks, mesh networks can work around dead spots created by interference from buildings.

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