December 21, 2008 By Sascha D. Meinrath
Emergency communications save lives.
The unfortunate corollary to this maxim: Communication failures kill. More attention is being focused on how to improve communication, not only within an emergency response organization, but also among first responders from different agencies. To remain fully connected, key communications officers have often adopted a "Bat Belt" approach with several communications devices - sometimes a half dozen or more - strapped to their waist. It's a necessity for communicating among the many federal, state and local agencies' wireless networks during an incident.
Today's IT is increasingly sophisticated, and emergency response agencies and hardware platforms are proliferating, which makes interoperable communications ever more urgent. Natural or man-made disasters require close interaction of many organizations, but the sad reality is that too many communications systems aren't interoperable; this can lead to on-the-ground snafus, inefficiency and tragedies - as was exemplified in the disaster response after Hurricane Katrina. Within these contexts, the FCC is working to open new radio frequencies to meet first responders' interoperability needs.
Current FCC proceedings focus on creating a nationwide public-safety band for wireless communications among first responders. Ryan Hallahan and Jon Peha sum up the opportunities this rulemaking holds in their 2008 paper, Quantifying the Costs of a Nationwide Broadband Public Safety Wireless Network: "The problems facing the public safety wireless communication systems in the U.S. could be significantly reduced or eliminated through the deployment of a single nationwide network that serves all public safety personnel." On Sept. 25, 2008, the FCC released a Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking after the auction for the proposed public safety band failed to achieve its reserve price. The third notice strives to achieve "the goal of a nationwide interoperable broadband wireless network for public safety entities."
Although municipal CIOs and public safety leaders have welcomed reserving a band for interoperable public safety communications, details have proven hard to nail down. With the proceeding dragging into its third year, public safety representatives - frustrated with the lack of significant progress and faced with the daily difficulties associated with many noninterconnected systems - have begun to organize and weigh in. Many of them believe the 700 MHz band could potentially let them upgrade existing infrastructures - adding services, applications, speed and interoperability in one swoop. For municipalities seeking to transition from analog systems to digital networks, the 700 MHz band provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity for an across-the-board upgrade.
Today's emergency responders use several communications devices, which are often tailored to the constituencies they serve. Thus, fire responder radios are built to ensure that their equipment doesn't generate electronical sparks; this makes them safe to use during gas leaks. Though this is obviously necessary, problems arise, for example, when fire responder and police radios that operate on different systems can't communicate effectively with each other.
Michelle Geddes, interoperability program manager of San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management, said two major challenges exist: voice interoperability and data operability. To facilitate this, Project 25 (P25) was created to develop interoperable, digital communications standards for emergency responders. "In terms of voice communications, the P25 standards are just being ratified, and a standards-based product is slowly coming to market," Geddes said. "The cost for the P25 technology is still extremely high, most likely due to the small market for these systems, making it financially difficult for municipalities to afford these networks."
But once the affordable hardware is available, there's still the problem of accessing public airwaves. According to Geddes, the 700 MHz public safety proceedings are supposed to solve the problem that "municipalities don't have a viable spectrum option to deploy ubiquitous wireless broadband systems within their jurisdictions." Currently municipalities tend to get by with the creation of systems kludged together from suboptimal spectrum bands - usually 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz (i.e., Wi-Fi) and 4.9 GHz