Ten years ago, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks introduced mainstream America to the war on terror, al-Qaida and communications interoperability. Earlier this year, U.S. Special Forces killed al-Qaida leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. But a decade after the attacks, interoperability — or the ability for emergency first responders to communicate with one another regardless of the technology they use — remains a work in progress.

Regional public safety interoperable networks are up and running in some places, like Los Angeles and Montana, and others are in the works. But for the rest of the country, interoperability remains on the to-do list. And the ultimate goal, a nationwide interoperable network for public safety and emergency personnel, isn’t much closer than it was in 2004 when the 9/11 Commission released its report on the tragedies.

“The inability to communicate was a critical element at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Somerset County, Pa., crash sites, where multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions responded,” said The 9/11 Commission Report. “The occurrence of this problem at three very different sites is strong evidence that compatible and adequate communications among public safety organizations at the local, state and federal levels remains an important problem.”

The report urged Congress to support pending legislation to assign more radio spectrum for public safety purposes. But a decade since approximately 2,752 people were killed during the attacks, a national system is still on the drawing board.

“It is about time for the Congress of the United States to make good on its commitment to the first responders and public safety community of this country, to build them an interoperable broadband public safety communications network,” said Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was created in response to the attacks. “The technology exists, the capability exists, but what is lacking — what is sadly lacking, what is tragically lacking, what is shamefully lacking — is the political will to build this system.”

Photo: Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Photo by David Kidd

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From Voice to Data

Experts say progress on national interoperability has been delayed by evolving technology — like the convergence of voice and data communications — along with widespread use of proprietary and incompatible communications gear.

The focus just after 9/11 was on radio interoperability. Firefighters in the World Trade Center’s North Tower didn’t receive evacuation warnings before the building collapsed, and agencies responding to the plane crash at the Pentagon couldn’t communicate because they were on different frequencies and using different protocols.

But while agencies scrambled to improve radio interoperability, first responders began emphasizing data communications, and technology vendors began combining voice and data capabilities into converged communications networks.

“In the early days, even the [U.S.] Department of Homeland Security focused on voice interoperability; it took a few years to realize that data is equally important,” said Paul Wormeli, executive director emeritus of the Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute, which works with the public and private sectors to improve information sharing. “Now we’re in this world of convergence where voice and data use the same infrastructure, in many cases voice over IP.”

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.