Dover Bitch

Saturday, August 04, 2007

What's the frequency, Rudy?

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo)

The tragedy in Minneapolis, like any disaster in America, provided another example of bravery and selflessness on behalf of everyday citizens and, especially, the nation's first responders. Fortunately, we haven't lived in the kind of country where disasters happen with extreme regularity. But when they do occur, there never seems to be a shortage of people willing to climb across wreckage or dive under a precarious pile of concrete.

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion yesterday praised the rescue efforts and delivered a piece of unsurprising, but nevertheless gratifying news: The state's investment in interoperable communications equipment had passed its first real test.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the 9/11 legislation the Democrats succeeded in getting signed into law this week (no, I'm not talking about the infuriating Senate bill on wiretapping) was the part that will fund interoperable communications systems throughout the nation. The chaos in New Orleans during Katrina was a stark reminder that every minute emergency crews spend trying to get information can be the difference between life and death for a victim -- or themselves.

It is simply disgraceful that the federal government couldn't get the funding together for these communications systems until this week, six years after 9/11 and 14 years after the first attack on the World Trade Center. That's just another reason to wish for the premature departure of Alaska's corrupt Ted Stevens, who, as former Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is as responsible for the delays as anybody in Washington.

It's a good thing that Minnesota didn't waste time waiting for the Republican Congress before implementing their radio plan. The results could have been much worse. Just ask Rudy Giuliani.

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.

That's from the Final Report Of The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PDF), ironically presented to Congress on Sept. 11, 1996, five years to the day before New York had to deal with the exact same problem once again. The federal government had been slow to deal with this issue basically because of money and the revenue Congress expects to make auctioning off spectrum. The broadcast industry hasn't exactly rushed to relinquish the frequencies they will be giving back as the nation moves to high definition television, which is one of the reasons you haven't heard this issue discussed much on the brain vacuum.

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.

But Giuliani was willing to wait five years for the federal government to act. Nothing prevented the City or State of New York from working out their local communications problems themselves, especially in light of the attacks that had already been carried out there and the ample evidence of inadequacies. The Republicans like to say that we can all spend money better than the federal government, but the Republican mayor and governor of New York were perfectly willing to pass this job off to Washington. The results speak for themselves:

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 (PDF)

We ask these brave men and women to risk their lives when the unimaginable happens. Is it too much to ask that they have the proper equipment to do the job? Giuliani and the superficial media may believe that he owns 9/11, but he wasn't willing to own the responsibility of providing for his own first responders. If he and his former GOP governor and administration want to own 9/11, they can start by accepting responsibility for the lack of effective communications systems.

Giuliani says he knows more about the threat of terrorism than anybody. I'd be willing to bet every single firefighter in New York (and Minneapolis) has forgotten more than he'll ever know.

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