Let's Talk Public Safety

— December 01, 2006

The Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy exposed significant communications vulnerabilities within the U.S. public safety and first responder communities. A massively overloaded cellular system, limited radio channels and coverage--especially after the destruction of repeaters and command and control systems--and a lack of tower redundancy all contributed to the first responder communications breakdown. While the government and public safety sector represents some of the most advanced users of mobility solutions, most are legacy "stovepipe" systems that lack inter-agency interoperability. Plus, public safety has traditionally planned for short-term events and not widespread catastrophes.

As a result, several initiatives were introduced, including the SAFECOM program and Improve Interoperable Communications for First Responders (ICOM) Act. However, many of these programs have stalled and face significant hurdles. Key issues are the lack of sustained executive program leadership and frequent staffing shifts. Many of these initiatives have also not achieved the necessary level of cross-government agency collaboration. In fact, according to recent research conducted by VDC, the greatest challenge facing public safety organizations is not the technology itself but rather getting agencies to work together--which is especially acute when sharing criminal justice database information.

According to a GAO report, a variety of challenges has impacted the government's ability to address emergency communications interoperability issue. Besides the vast number of distinct governmental agencies involved, the National Task Force on Interoperability identified a list of barriers that includes the "fragmentation and limited availability of radio communications spectrum for dedicated use by emergency personnel, incompatible and aging communications equipment, limited equipment standards within the public safety community and the lack of appropriate life-cycle funding strategies."

This lack of progress was perhaps best evidenced by the communications breakdown following Hurricane Katrina. Key issues faced after Katrina were similar to those after Sept. 11 and included tower/infrastructure, power and PSTN, and network infrastructure failures. While satellite solutions were used where traditional land, mobile and commercial services were not available, they lacked reliability and represented only a partial solution.

There remains much work to be done. According to VDC research, some of the key applications being worked on include:

  • GIS/AVL Integration to provide detailed mapping and location information in support of incident response and management.

  • Interfaces to Medical and Hazardous Material Databases. First responders require comprehensive and detailed information on chemical and hazardous materials encountered during incident response.

  • Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Integration. The ability to integrate existing CAD systems from first responder agencies is critical, in addition to providing next-generation interfaces such as digital video.

The occurrence of another natural disaster or terrorist attack is unfortunately a matter of when and not if. The mounting evidence clearly indicates that not addressing these communications issues adds an additional layer of vulnerability to the public safety and
emergency response system. //

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