Little Progress on National Public Safety Network 10 Years After 9/11

A decade after the 9/11 attacks, strides have been made in regional public safety interoperability, but a nationwide system is still lacking.

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.”

The convergence of voice and data networks makes interoperability more complex — not only must voice data be received and sent across radios and telecom systems, but disparate databases and computer-aided dispatch systems must also send and receive information.

Standards are another crucial issue. Although the use of open communications standards has come far in 10 years, there’s still a huge amount of proprietary communications gear in use by public safety agencies nationwide.    

“In major events like Hurricane Katrina, we get people moving into grief-stricken areas from other parts of the country, and because of the diverse equipment that’s out there that uses proprietary technology, this is a huge problem nationally,” said Dick Mirgon, past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. Mirgon is also the spokesman for the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), a partnership of public safety associations that seeks to make the federal government aware of what first responder agencies need to build a nationwide interoperable wireless network.

“Proprietary equipment” are two words that make officials shudder at a time when voice and data are being viewed as essentially the same types of technology. The current environment doesn’t just hinder cross-agency communication, it also increases costs and slows innovation. “The staff of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau believe that proprietary solutions and market dominance play an important role in the problems with interoperability, innovation, cost and competition in the market for public safety communications equipment,” wrote FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a 2010 report.

One solution for vendors’ products that can’t intercommunicate is open standards like the National Information Exchange Model, which uses extensible markup language to exchange information regardless of platform or computer system.  “We’ve built information exchange capability that would have never come close to existing prior to Sept. 11,” Wormeli said.

While advancement has been made, parts of the U.S. still rely on paper-based processes, and Wormeli said the standards must be replicated and built into off-the-shelf products that many small- and medium-sized jurisdictions buy. “We have to get all of the companies that make those products to incorporate those standards, and we’re making progress on that end,” he said.

That’s the IJIS Institute’s main goal: to educate and help industry adopt standards. Wormeli said it’s monetarily beneficial for companies to adopt standards, and it lets them reduce risk when selling to small agencies. But, he added, the practitioner community can also request that standards are incorporated into products by including the right language in RFPs.

“Once you have an accepted standard out there and a technology that’s used for commercial networks, the cost of deployment significantly drops and it becomes much easier to become interoperable,” Mirgon said.

It’s not just the public sector that advocates standardization. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), a standards development organization, supports the use of voluntary, open, consensus-based standards, said Danielle Coffey, TIA’s vice president for government affairs. She said the TIA works with public safety organizations, like APCO to weigh what’s best for the industry with the technical aspects and how they’d affect consumers.

“The more manufacturers that adopt standards and build to those standards, the more probability or allowance for increased interoperability,” Coffey said.

Reallocating Spectrum

Before the national interoperable network can be built, however, it may need a new place to live.

The 9/11 Commission recommended that more spectrum be allocated to public safety so that first responders from different agencies and jurisdictions would have an easier time communicating. Public safety radio systems operate in portions of the 800 MHz band. But the band also is used by commercial wireless carriers and private radio systems. Essentially public safety needs increased and dedicated spectrum to build out a national broadband system.

Both the FCC and federal lawmakers recently took steps toward building the national network. In January, the FCC made the unusual move of designating Long Term Evolution as the communications standard infrastructure for the network, which Genachowshi said is key to its creation. Now legislation is being presented to carve out new spectrum for public safety users and to provide funding for the build-out of the national network. Several bills would reallocate space in the 700 MHz band of spectrum — known as the D Block — for dedicated public safety use, allowing more users to be on the network, as well as additional applications.

“Reallocation is the best way to ensure that public safety has the leverage to incentivize the public-private partnerships and network-sharing arrangements that are essential to constructing a nationwide broadband network,” said Rep. Henry Waxman at a legislative hearing in July to address spectrum and public safety issues. “Moreover, reallocation allows us to plan for public safety’s transition to broadband.”

The PSA and other public safety groups support S.911: Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011, a bill that includes allocating the D Block of the 700 MHz band to public safety and establishing framework for deployment of a national wireless broadband network. Mirgon said a key part of S.911 calls for a governing body to oversee the network’s deployment. “In many areas, such as rural areas, it’s going to be a bit challenging, and there’s going to have to be partnerships built with people and infrastructure,” he said, “and that includes local government, state government, utilities and commercial.”

Other bills also seek to fill the gap, including Rep. Peter King’s Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011, which also calls for allocation of the D Block for first responders. Currently the FCC proposes to auction the D Block to commercial interests with the stipulation that the winning bidder form a public-private partnership under the direction of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corp., a nonprofit consisting of public safety groups.

Ridge said he was glad to see that the topic’s being discussed in both chambers, “but there just seems to not be momentum.”

New York’s Approach to Interoperability

 The inability to communicate between agencies has long been an issue for first responders, but 9/11 highlighted the problem, particularly in New York. To advance interoperability, the state created the Office of Interoperable and Emergency Communications (OIEC) — within the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security — in 2010 to give assistance and guidance to counties. A state grant program began in fiscal 2010-2011 with $20 million appropriated to help fund county interoperability projects. “The approach is to achieve a network of networks and encourage counties and local jurisdictions to partner to find the best solution to communicate with each other and first responders,” said Robert Barbato, OIEC’s deputy director.

As part of the competitive grant process, counties must be a member of a public safety communications consortium, identify who else benefits from the system and explain how it furthers their capability to provide interoperable communications in compliance with the federal SAFECOM program, a practitioner-driven initiative that works with all government levels.

But the OIEC doesn’t want agencies to necessarily put interoperability ahead of daily needs. The Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan says, “New York realizes that interoperability is not necessarily an indicator of adequate operability.”

“Counties tell us interoperability is a logical goal and it’s a priority for state and federal government, but many of us need to build out our capacity for routine stuff as well,” Barbato said.

To measure progress, the OIEC asked counties to do a self-assessment against the SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum, which includes governance, technology, training and usage. The OIEC plans to have counties reassess in 2011, and it’ll follow up with audits and interviews.

Sticker Shock

Billions of dollars have been poured into interoperability during the last decade, but lack of money is another issue holding the national network back. Ridge said there’s concern about the system’s expense — in the National Broadband Plan, the FCC estimated that the network would require up to $6.5 billion in capital expenditures over 10 years — but that money should be focused on this project because it enhances public safety and national security.

Scarce funding is hindering progress, Mirgon said, but it’s not just impacting the federal government’s efforts. Public safety agencies typically replace their equipment every 10 to 20 years, but technology is changing much faster than that. “There’s not enough money to keep up with technology, nor is technology cost-effective because of those proprietary networks,” Mirgon said.

And just having technology isn’t enough; agencies must train responders how to use it.

For example, Los Angeles trains responders on the interoperability devices every month, he said. “They actually take them out, set them up and train on them to ensure that they are current and familiar with them so they operate when they need them. That’s a lot of time, energy and manpower resources that most agencies don’t have to spare.”

The problem is even worse in areas where bridges, gateways and other interoperability devices have been implemented to connect incompatible proprietary technologies, Mirgon said. “In many cases, they are too complex to operate.”

10 Years Later

Even though much work remains before responders can talk and exchange data over a nationwide network, headway has been made. Regional communications have been greatly enhanced since 9/11 brought these issues to light, technology has evolved, and government and industry are working together on standards.

Solutions have been developed and implemented in major urban areas to facilitate voice communications between agencies. Bridging devices and 800 MHz networks have helped to make this possible, and federal programs are testing technologies like multiband radios that allow first responders to communicate with other agencies regardless of which radio band they operate on.

Data sharing hasn’t come as far, but projects have been implemented that fill the void at the regional level. The FCC granted waivers to jurisdictions — including Los Angeles, Mississippi and the San Francisco Bay Area — to build their own public safety broadband networks. Once rolled out, these networks could provide the backbone for a national broadband network and move the U.S. closer to achieving cross-border collaboration and interoperability.

But until there’s a universally accepted standard for sharing voice and data, national public safety interoperability remains on hold. “There’s no better time to do this than on the 10th anniversary. We’ve been waiting 10 years; that’s much too long,” Ridge said. “We put a man on the moon in seven, and it’s 10 years after 9/11 and we still don’t have a broadband communications system.” 

Miriam Jones is chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. She joined e.Republic in 2000 as an editor of Converge magazine.