The 9/11 terrorist attacks triggered a nationwide scramble to develop interoperable communications among emergency responders. But Hurricane Katrina left officials scratching their heads over the utter disappearance of even basic communications.
Radio system failures meant local first responders couldn't communicate easily among themselves, not to mention the array of outside agencies that arrived on the scene to help.
"We didn't have an interoperability problem, we had an operability problem," said Lt. Col. Joey Booth of the Louisiana State Police. "We couldn't communicate within our own department much less with other departments. We had a lot of responders coming in to help, but our system didn't have the capacity to operate with all these new users."
Experts say these shortcomings point to the need for more attention on ensuring the availability of radio systems during major disasters, or at least to creating plans that guide first responders when radio communications fail. Furthermore, experts warn that public policymakers must address the issues that hinder radio operability when it's needed most -- a dearth of available radio spectrum and the failure to anticipate worst-case scenarios.
Ultimately the challenges of radio operability and interoperability are intertwined. To succeed, policymakers and emergency responders must tackle both issues: building radio systems that withstand worst-case disasters and linking to systems used by other agencies.
During the Katrina response, emergency personnel found that nearly all forms of communication, such as cell phones, landlines and satellite phones, were down, and the Louisiana State Police radio system was inoperable because the frequency on which it operated was clogged with users.
Insufficient frequency plagues public safety communications, but Congress and the FCC are working to set aside more frequency for public safety agencies.
With no means of communicating, it's difficult to dispense commands and coordinate response. During Katrina's aftermath, communications were reduced to the use of runners, as in World War II.
"One of the basic foundations for incident command is communications," said Willis Carter, who, as chief of communications, manages the Shreveport, La., Fire Department's Emergency Communications Center. Carter is also the first vice president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International (APCO). "You have to be able to communicate throughout the command system for it to be effective. We were unable to do that."
Given the recent emphasis on communications, David Boyd, director of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, was surprised there was such a complete breakdown.
"Part of that is because we just assumed everybody understood that operability was the essential first requirement," Boyd said. "Among public safety agencies, they understand that. But it's clear at the policy level that there is some confusion about the distinction between interoperability and operability."
Efforts to develop interoperability began before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the concept became a popular topic immediately thereafter, when fire, police and port authority personnel couldn't communicate with one another. As a result, some perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
The problem -- the inability of disparate radio systems to communicate with one another -- really began in the early 1990s when vendors started building proprietary systems. The different frequencies on which those systems are aired exacerbate the problem.
The Louisiana State Police radio system operates on an 800 MHz band frequency, and could not handle the multitude of users swarming the area to help.
A frequency band is a range of frequencies in a spectrum used for transmission or reception of radio waves. The spectrum's ranges/bands go from very low frequencies of 3 kHz to 30 kHz, to ultra-high frequencies of 300 MHz to 3000 MHz, and all the way up to extremely high frequencies of 30 GHz to 300 GHz.
Because radio transmitters sharing the same frequency band will interfere with one another, the federal government regulates band usage, allocating specific bands to users such as broadcasting, public safety and amateur radio.
"The basic problem is we needed the infrastructure to add the capacity to the system to allow us to not only have interoperability, but basic operability," Booth said. "We've been working very hard on this, and like anything else, the funding is a big piece of the answer -- but [so are] standards. We have our license in the 4.9 [GHz band], but like everybody else, we're waiting on standards and equipment so we can move into it."
Booth said even without the storm, which knocked out the system, the Louisiana State Police radio infrastructure didn't have the capacity to handle the multitude of users during Katrina.
"There needs to be more push, if you will. There needs to be some way to go ahead and plan to have systems that can be easily connected," he said. "It's all the more important that we move toward standardization where possible in communications and get, across the country, police, fire -- all the disciplines -- on some sort of common network."
But sources said that final standardization will take some time, and urged state and local agencies to work toward developing operable systems, back-up systems and plans of operation to follow when communications systems are completely wiped out.
"Our material always starts with operability first," Boyd said. "The inverted triangle always starts with communications internally."
There may be a point, as was the case with Katrina, where communication on the most basic level must be the goal, and interoperability is not a reality, according to Tom Tolman, program manager of Communications Technology for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center. "I would say operability is the word before interoperability for a situation like that. Foundationally that infrastructure being wiped out [and] that level of catastrophe override an issue such as 'A isn't talking to B.'"
James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said there will always be communication challenges during disasters, and that public safety officials must prepare for that eventuality.
"This notion that somehow interoperability is the silver bullet that could solve all our problems is a bit ridiculous," he said. "We should be having two discussions: What do you do in an emergency when the infrastructure is destroyed, there's no network, there's no Internet, and there's no telephone or anything else? [And] how do you re-establish a modicum of communications to integrate everybody?"
Carafano said another issue to address is, "Where do we really need to be interoperable, and what should our priorities be?"
Boyd said the hope is that operability will move toward regional interoperability -- meaning all regional systems with different protocols and technologies will communicate on a national scale. And it already has in many areas.
"Remember that we don't need every officer to be able to talk to every other officer in the United States," Boyd said. "He needs to be able to talk to those people who are involved in the incident that he or she is directly involved in."
He said there is no plan for a single national network or a single technology-based network.
"You want to be cautious that you not stifle innovation," Boyd said. "So if you produce standards that are too rigid and specifications for linking that are too rigid, we wind up locking people into today's technology. In part, that's kind of what we have now. People have locked themselves into technology that's sometimes 30 years old. We don't want that to happen again."
The first priority, Boyd said, is formulating regional agreements -- statewide plans that work from the bottom up so that all localities are involved.
"We emphasize that that needs to be driven by localities because they own, operate and maintain the bulk of these systems," he said. "And if they will agree to work together, then that goes probably 90 percent of the distance to achieve near-term interoperability to address emergencies."
Is there a danger that those regional systems won't become linked on a national scale?
Boyd says yes.
"There is a clear possibility of that, which is why we keep making the point that there's no silver bullet," he said. "We have to develop a combination of standards."
Boyd pointed out that federal grants, such as Urban Areas Security Initiative grants that have gone for communications, provide guidance on how to use the money. The DHS's national Statement of Requirements is also a good source for guidelines.
Another guideline is Project 25 (P25) -- the now 15-year-old, yet still incomplete, initiative to build standards for the eight interfaces between various components of a land mobile radio system. This includes handheld to handheld, handheld to mobile unit, and mobile unit to tower communications.
P25 is a committee tasked to select common standards for public safety radio communications. It includes representatives from APCO, the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors, the National Communications System, and other selected federal entities, and is directed by the Telecommunications Industry Association, an American National Standards Institute accredited organization.
So far only one interface -- the common air interface, which defines wireless access between mobile and portable radios -- has been advanced to the level where it could satisfy interoperability goals, according to the Sept. 29, 2005 testimony by Dereck Orr, program manager of Public Safety Communications Systems at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
"That's a whole other story," Tolman said. "Why is it taking so long to try to get it so vendor A can communicate with vendor B, and get past these proprietary systems that can't talk to each other?"
Tolman, a member of the steering committee for P25, said the federal government, through NIST, is trying to push the project onto the fast track.
"We can't wait another 15 years," he said. "It always seems to take a disaster to move things along."
During Katrina, Louisiana used an analog communication system installed in 1996 that was severely constrained -- partly because of a limited number of tower sites, and partly because the system was built on the 800 MHz frequency band.
"Even if our system was operating the way it was before the storm, we did not have the capacity to have five times the user group come in and operate on the system," Booth said. "We were operating on the old 800 trunk system -- that was a problem before the storm, and it was a worse problem after the storm."
Booth said there's a need for additional spectrum, reiterating an ongoing argument that includes moving the 700 MHz band away from broadcast media to public safety.
Tolman said the FCC and Nextel struck a deal whereby Nextel surrenders frequencies it uses in the 800 MHz band to give police and fire more room to operate in that spectrum. Nextel was granted 5 MHz blocks of spectrum in the 1900 MHz band.
A next critical step in the spectrum world is to force a deadline for TV broadcasters to free up spectrum in the 700 MHz band, which is ideal for first-responder communications, because signals sent via the frequency can penetrate walls and travel long distances.
A 1995 congressional panel recommended that broadcasters relinquish this spectrum and transition to digital transmission, which requires less spectrum, when 85 percent of households have the equipment to receive digital signals.
But critics say the percentage of households ready for digital broadcasts is far below 85 percent, and that there's no incentive for viewers or broadcasters to push the issue along -- absent a law.
When the 700 MHz band becomes available to public safety, it will be beneficial in more ways than one. In addition to providing more spectrum, it will allow manufacturers to design dual-band radios that operate under both 800 MHz and 700 MHz bands, according to Tolman. "Now the struggle is to get a certain date on when broadcasters will start disconnecting and shutting down their analog," he said.
No Silver Bullet
In the meantime, state and local first-responder agencies might want to look to the military for operability and interoperability solutions when the infrastructure is wiped out.
"I think the answer is something like some kind of wireless ad hoc network that you would put up," Carafano said.
That type of network -- a portable network that allows agencies to quickly deploy wireless communications in areas where fixed infrastructure doesn't exist or has been destroyed -- has its genesis in the military, according to Tolman.
"That concept is really moving out. We're seeing more and more stories of entrepreneurial and established [systems], including Motorola with their Motobridge for example, and also the lesser known [systems] out there.
"Isn't it interesting that the military doesn't have to worry about infrastructure or sites because they've got that figured out? They take their systems with them," Tolman added.
But again, there is no silver bullet.
"I would not say there is one supreme system, tool or capability, or one answer," Tolman said. "But rather a combination, and I would say finding the right combination given the circumstances."
Boyd agreed, saying there are many technologies that play a role, but none by itself is the answer. "Mesh networks, for example, do a pretty good job of allowing you to put together a headquarters or an incident control network in a relatively small area. They're designed for small area sorts of things."
The military also excels at logistics, and state and local first-responder agencies could better prepare for disasters by acknowledging the worst-case scenario during training exercises.
"How does the military get it done?" Tolman asked. "There's something in there that the state and locals can learn from. Again, we've been through this before, where we've talked about the importance of planning. I would say 15 percent of the issue is technology, and the other 85 percent is planning and preparation, operationally and logistically."
Boyd said the military always prepares for the worst-case scenario. "You [plan] that everything, at some point, is going to fail, and you build from that," he said.
Boyd agreed that most state and local government first responder agencies don't plan for the worst-case scenario. "I would be inclined to say it would be fairly rare. Most people don't think in terms of worst case."
The plan should, but often doesn't, include planning for the complete loss of a communications system during a disaster, Boyd said. "We typically don't really exercise communications. The reason [state and local agencies] don't is they're trying to test some element or some feature of the general planning, but of course once you lose communications, all that falls apart."
Disaster planning should be multi-tiered, providing exercises, including communications, for each step along the way during an emergency -- all the way down to having to use the runner system for communications when all else fails.
"Part of the logic behind that is [that] the mere process of going through the worst-case thinking and planning makes it easier for you, when things fail, to begin to make some kind of ad hoc fixes, because you'll have some idea about what fixes will be required," Boyd said. "You have an idea because you've thought through already what kinds of things might be required.
"You have to know what's in the plan, exercise the plan and revise the plan," he continued. "You have to train operators so they can pass the message accurately, consistently. And then you have to be prepared for what happens if it all fails. The plain truth is that nature is going to be bigger and more powerful than we are."