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As Sandy Bashes the Northeast, Emergency Communications Remain Flawed

Federal efforts to create a better network for emergency services after September 11 remain unfulfilled.
October 29, 2012

More than 11 years after the September 11 attacks exposed the inadequacies of U.S. emergency communications networks, Hurricane Sandy strikes a nation still plagued by incompatible and incomplete emergency systems. 

Emergency link: An Ocean City police SUV drives past some of the benches that have been washed from their bolted-down positions on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the East Coast.

“If Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 happened today, the results, from a communications standpoint, would largely be the same,” says Vanu Bose, CEO of Vanu, a wireless communications company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who served on a committee that wrote a federal report on spectrum allocation this summer. “Maybe in the next five to 10 years we can actually solve the problem.”

During the September 11 attacks, problems included police and fire units using different communications channels—a factor that contributed to the deaths of some firefighters who didn’t receive evacuation messages (see “Communicating in Crisis”). Similar interoperability problems, as well as poor communications between different levels of government, plagued the response to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005.

Despite the explosion in commercial mobile communications in the ensuing years, a nationwide data-capable emergency network is still unbuilt, with many agencies instead using voice-only systems that aren’t always compatible with one another.

“I think one of the challenges here is that all of these problems only get attention when there is a disaster,” Bose says. “We have this flurry of activity: ‘Hey do you have anything you can send down to the Gulf right now?’ And then six months later it’s forgotten. There’s a lack of attention span, and also it’s a budget issue.”

During a hurricane or other disaster, the two major failure points in communications networks are the loss of power and the loss of the backhaul capacity—that is, of the fiber that carries signals from base stations. In the aftermath of Katrina, it turned out that although one carrier had built a very robust cellular tower above the water line, the cable connecting that tower to the central office was underwater and out of service.

After years of partial efforts to upgrade systems in some regions, in February of this year, Congress set aside $7 billion to create a “First Responders Network Authority,” or FirstNet, a federal office charged with designing and building a true nationwide emergency network. The goal: interoperability across agencies, widespread coverage, and extreme robustness in the face of disaster.

The system envisioned under FirstNet will operate in the 700-megahertz band, which once was used for old analog TV channels but has been cleared out and made available to LTE networks, with a piece set aside for public safety.

But $7 billion doesn’t go far these days in building new cell towers all over the landscape. One issue that Hurricane Sandy will likely resolve, one way or the other, is whether it makes sense for the FirstNet plan to instead add its transmission system on the same physical cell tower infrastructure already widely leased or owned by wireless carriers, says Jeff Reed, who heads a wireless research lab at Virginia Tech. “We are looking at public safety possibly coexisting with commercial systems. And the question on everyone’s mind is: ‘How robust will that network be?’ ” he says. “This storm is going to really test how robust our wireless communications networks are.”

Commercial networks are standing, but leave something to be desired. In an ideal world, an emergency system provides universal coverage and can withstand major disasters and long periods without power. Viewed this way, “cellular systems are solid, but not as solid as public safety systems,” Reed says, because they may not be as physically strong or have long enough backup power.

What’s more, relying on commercial systems still leaves out some people who live in sparsely populated areas that carriers didn’t find a business case in serving. Carriers care most about providing large amounts of capacity to data-hungry customers in densely populated areas. By contrast, “a public safety network wants full coverage, not capacity,” he says.

An FCC board issued recommendations this past summer for how FirstNet could achieve interoperability. This will require actions by individual states, spelled out here. “It is going to go a long ways to solve this compatibility issue; it is just taking way too long to make this happen,” Reed says.

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