Disasters Highlight Need for Broadband First Responder Network

It’s time to build a national public safety network.

by / August 31, 2011
Illustration by Tom McKeith Tom McKeith

Just before 2 p.m. on Aug. 23, I was in a taxi at the James Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C. The building — across from the National Mall, near the Smithsonian — houses the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). I’d arrived for an interview; that’s when the cab started shaking.

It was over before I realized what had happened: A 5.8 magnitude earthquake, centered near Richmond, Va., had shaken the nation’s capital and much of the East Coast. Workers surged from the DOE headquarters and nearby office buildings until thousands of people were on the street. Helicopters circled overhead. The National Park Service quickly closed the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

The quake — the strongest to hit the region in 67 years — lasted less than a minute and reportedly caused no deaths or serious injuries. Its impact on normal life in downtown Washington, D.C., however, was severe. Traffic gridlocked as people tried to leave the city. Trains and subways slowed to a crawl as workers inspected tracks for damage.

Most people reached for their cell phones to check on colleagues and loved ones. I know I did. But cellular networks quickly clogged, according to The Washington Post, prompting FEMA to ask the public to switch to e-mail or text messages.

Critics called the disruptions evidence that commercial cell networks can’t meet public safety needs in an emergency, and they renewed calls for Congress and regulators to provide a wireless broadband network dedicated to emergency and public safety personnel.

It’s a stark reminder of unfinished business. As we mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. still lacks a nationwide broadband wireless network to connect first responders. Such a network, designed to allow first responders from different agencies to communicate, was a key recommendation in the 9/11 Commission’s 2004 report on the tragedies.

As our cover story explains, that network’s progress has been stifled by funding, technology and political issues. But it must be done. In August, I attended meetings where local officials from New York City and Fairfax County, Va., urged Congress to act on legislation to carve out new spectrum for public safety users and to provide funding to build out the national network. They say it’s critical to their public safety efforts.

Ten years is long enough. As former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge said in our story: “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.”

Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

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