Dover Bitch

Saturday, December 10, 2005

F: Incommunicado

Note: This is Part II of a short series on the issue of the failure of our representatives in Washington to provide our first responders with the communications technology necessary to save lives. Part I | Part III | Part IV.

A NYPD helicopter pilot reported early, before the fall of the South Tower, that the North Tower was going to fall, but the fire chiefs did not hear of this. When the pilot saw that the South Tower was falling his announcement to police command was instant, and police command issued a forceful and robust order to evacuate the remaining building and to move all department vehicles to safety. Notwithstanding that this was a successful communication that resulted in the saving of many lives, the fire chiefs did not hear this order.

The command of the North Tower was covered with debris when the South Tower fell, and Chief Joseph Pfeifer, in complete darkness, gave the order, "All units in Tower One evacuate the building."

Just how many firefighters escaped in the twenty-nine minutes from Chief Pfeiffer's order is not certain, but we do know that one police officer, at least five Port Authority police officers, and 121 firefighters were killed when the second tower collapsed. Others were killed on the street, including four ESU 5 officers and a number of other firefighters who had successfully evacuated the building. -- 9/11 testimony of Dennis Smith, June 19, 2004

The 9/11 Commissioners Monday gave our government an 'F' for its lack of progress in improving the communications capabilities of our first responders. What exactly is the problem the government needs to be addressing and what are the recommended solutions?

The problems are, in a nutshell:

  • The radio systems that different agencies use are not "interoperable." If the police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other agencies all arrive at the scene of a catastrophe, they cannot speak directly to one another through the radios they are carrying. They have to be routed through other systems, costing them precious time. The astronauts in the space station have a more direct line of communication with NASA than a firefighter has with a police helicopter 100 feet above his head.

  • The frequencies that are used by these public safety agencies are too limited to deliver the valuable information that your iPod can display. We always see television shows where the police beam satellite photos, X-rays, bomb diagrams, etc... to officers on the scene or in an impressive "war room" lined with flat-panel displays. The reality is that the first responders, who selflessly run into horrific situations to protect us, don't have the kind of bandwidth to move more than their voices.

  • The frequencies devoted to the first responders are not ideal for mission-critical applications. What could be more mission-critical than life-or-death situations like accidents, terror threats or natural disasters? And yet, the frequencies that we give to the people upon whom we depend to risk everything for us are inadequate for the task. In a society in which average citizens consider switching cell phone carriers if they cannot make dinner plans on the elevator, it is a travesty that our first responders are out of touch with each other in the middle of dire situations. The frequencies they use are in "crowded" areas of the broadcast spectrum and there is often interference, especially in urban areas.

Bottom line: Our first responders need a bigger and better slice of the broadcast spectrum and more advanced equipment in order to take advantage of that bandwidth.

What is the spectrum?

If you go on a picnic and take an AM/FM radio to tune in your favorite station, you are pulling radio waves out of the air. The rate at which a wave moves in a single cycle (up, then down, then back up again) is what is called the "frequency." When you tune your radio to a particular station, you're pulling waves that correspond to that station's assigned frequency. The station licenses use of that frequency from the government. That is because all the frequencies in the nation's airspace belong to the public.

Here are some maps of the nation's frequency assignments. Looking at those maps, you can see that there's not a great deal that isn't designated for something already.

The important frequencies for this discussion are in the 700 MHz band of the spectrum, the area in which television stations have been broadcasting for years. Because of innovations in DTV, or Digital Television, stations are also broadcasting on frequencies that have been allocated for that purpose. Over 1,500 stations are currently broadcasting in both analog and digital, at a large expense to them. DB should also point out here that the procedures and effort involved in spectrum reassignment by the government are not trivial and a tremendous amount of work went into devising a way to assign these additional frequencies.

Congress passed laws requiring television stations to relinquish their control of frequencies in the 700 MHz band, but only when enough consumers (85%) in a given area have the capability to receive DTV broadcasts. Once they have been returned to the public, some of the old TV frequencies in this range can be used by public safety agencies.

Here's one of the sticky points: There are millions of televisions that cannot receive DTV broadcasts. If you have cable TV or a satellite, that probably doesn't matter because the box that your cable company provides does all the tuning and digital conversion before passing the picture and sound to your television. If you don't subscribe to cable and just have a pair of "rabbit ears" on top of your TV, you are pulling the broadcast from the 700 MHz band and your TV will go dark when the station stops broadcasting analog and only broadcasts digital. At that point, you will need to get a DTV tuner for your television, a new television with a DTV tuner, or you will need to subscribe to cable or satellite and use their tuner.

All the debates about this issue have to do with these 700 MHz band frequencies. They will eventually be relinquished by the television broadcasters. When that happens, the government will immediately give some of them to the public safety agencies (who will then require addition time, years even, before they have the equipment and training to use them). Other frequencies in this band will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The government expects to make tens of billions of dollars from these auctions.

DB thinks the first responders should have these frequencies as soon as possible. So do the 9/11 Commissioners. So did the authors of the Final Report Of The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PDF), issued on (note the date) Sept. 11, 1996:

In the short term (within 5 years), approximately 25 MHz of new Public Safety allocations are needed. The present shortages can be addressed by making part of the spectrum presently used for television broadcast channels 60-69 available as soon as possible.

The reason the 9/11 Commissioners gave the government its 'F' is that a hard date for giving up the 700 MHz band has still not been mandated. There is legislation up for a vote right now that would set the date in 2009.

The next post here will be about that deadline. Why 2009? Why not sooner? What is holding it up? Who says we need more time? Who in Washington has proposed a sooner deadline? Who killed that proposal?

DB has been looking into the answers for those questions and could use some help. So far, the picture that's coming into focus isn't pretty.

Part III is here.

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