F: Broken Promises
No responsibility is more fundamental and reflective of the nation's values than that of its Public Safety agencies. The citizens' legitimate expectation is that when their life or property is endangered, their government will respond. Vast federal, state, and local resources are committed to ensure this obligation is met. The effectiveness of police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical services (EMS) personnel, and other Public Safety officials is inextricably tied to communications capability. Today's communications environment, however, impedes meeting this responsibility. Rescuing victims of the World Trade Center bombing, who were caught between floors, was hindered when police officers could not communicate with fire fighters on the very next floor. Similarly, the inability to communicate among the agencies that had rushed to the Oklahoma City bombing site required resorting to runners to relay messages. The lack of sufficient, quality radio spectrum suitable for Public Safety use deters technological innovation, diminishes the responsiveness and effectiveness of Public Safety, and ultimately compromises the safety of the responding officers and of the very individuals seeking their help.
In the past five years, America has not done a spectacular job of helping those among us who need help the most. DB has found that, in general, advocacy on their behalf is often met with a suggestion that they "help themselves." We see this attitude manifested in tax cuts for the wealthy and federal aid cuts for students. We see it in the slashing of funds for school lunches and food stamps. We see it in New Orleans.
But there is one group of people who needs help and not a soul among us can say they either can or should solve their own problems. Nobody can say they don't take personal responsibility for their actions. And absolutely nobody, not a single person, can say that what they do isn't vital to our existence.
DB is talking about the firefighters, who run into burning skyscrapers. Police, who wade through disease-infested flood waters to look for victims. DB's talking about our first responders, the people upon whom we can always count to step up to the challenges we face as a nation when disaster's course is inevitably cast.
The 'F' our government earned Monday for the lack of motion on the issue of communications for our first responders was labeled a "scandal" by the 9/11 Commissioners. DB objects to the word. Americans are used to scandals in Washington.
This 'F' is no scandal. It is a complete dereliction of duty by our representatives in Washington and a betrayal by the government in its responsibilities to our first responders. It is quite simply a breach of a sacred promise by the president: a vow to keep America safe after 9/11.
Every talking head Monday mentioned the failing grades. The word "communications" was bandied about in a torrent of other topics. But did anybody watching the news hear an explanation from any member of the government or media as to why the police cannot communicate with the firefighters at the same location? Did anybody explain why there have been delays in fixing the problem or for how long the possible solutions have been discussed?
All we heard is that our first responders -- from here on out, DB will refer to them as "heroes" because that is what they are -- will not get the "frequencies" they need to communicate until 2009. We heard groans because it seems like we have lost our sense of urgency... it seems like a long time after Sept. 11, 2001.
The reality is, however, that this problem did not begin on Sept. 11, 2001. That quote at the beginning of this post is from Sept. 11, 1996.
It is the introduction to the Final Report Of The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PDF), presented to the FCC five years to the day before our lives changed forever and containing conclusions such as the following (emphasis mine):
This report identifies a number of approaches that can provide Public Safety with enhanced communications capabilities — higher quality transmission, access to emerging technologies, and availability of a broader range of services — immediately and in the long term. The first is allocation of additional spectrum for Public Safety. This entails reallocating spectrum from other uses and/or adding Public Safety uses to already allocated bands through sharing.
It is likely that widely accepted use of commercial services may take longer than five years. The need for spectrum to provide interoperability is immediate, and the alternatives for short-term solutions are limited.
Public safety cannot afford to wait five or more years for spectrum relief assistance from the commercial sector as a solution to pressing interoperability problems today. By the time commercial services become more widely used for Public Safety applications, the amount of spectrum needed to accommodate yet-to-be-discovered applications will likely increase with those new requirements.
The infuriating truth is that the delays have less to do with the lack of urgency that undoubtedly exists in Washington and more to do with avarice.
Avarice from the corporations that have resisted and continue to resist the relinquishing of publicly-owned frequencies. Avarice from our representatives in Washington, who are deliberately stalling in the hopes that these frequencies they intend to auction off to the highest bidder might be worth more money in 2009 than in 2007.
The technology and laws are quite complicated. The reason for the delays is that simple.
There will be times in the future, as there have in the past, when lives will be lost, heroes will die, because our government is more interested in profits than in its solemn duty to protect us. The reason we do not turn on the news and hear about the lobbyists who are fighting to stall the handing over of those frequencies is that it is the broadcasters and cable companies themselves who are resisting the transition. Politicians are not eager to engage in a battle with the corporations who control the television and radio stations that broadcast to their constituents. It is our national interest that is sacrificed.
The next few posts here will all be about this topic. DB will try to explain the basics of the technological challenges and the solutions that have been proposed. We will discuss the billions of dollars that are being promised and projected. We will discuss the reasons that have been given for the 2009 date and whether any of those reasons hold up to scrutiny. We will also discuss the interest groups, politicians and government agencies involved in this sorry affair.
DB will also ask for help... help getting information and help motivating Senators and Congressional Representatives who have cast votes on this issue and will cast more. There are associations who represent our heroes and there may be things you can do to help them. Some of these groups have to fight so hard to defend their budgets today that they can't even consider fighting big battles for equipment they won't get for several years.
DB is no expert in this arena. There is a tremendous amount that is unknown to this blogger and very few people DB has spoken to have been forthcoming. Many seem to be as in the dark as DB was when beginning this quest for answers. There will be big blanks that someone else can fill in. There will also be some mistakes here and when they are pointed out, DB will correct them if possible.
DB does not pretend to be the sole possessor of truth and knowledge. This endeavor began with a simple question: What is possibly holding things up and why isn't anybody talking about it? Hopefully this blog will get some visitors with some real insight.
One thing is clear: There are powerful people who obviously don't want a national conversation about any of this. But these are important questions and it is apparently up to those of us on the Internet and in the public square to get to the bottom of this problem and hold our government accountable. Our lives, quite frankly, depend on it.
Part II can be found here.