In Case of Emergency, Read This Blog

In Case Of Emergency, Read Blog

A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Emergency Radios That Still Don’t Communicate With Each Other 9 Years Later & The Danger To Government Credibility With The Public

September 20th, 2010 · 3 Comments

For government authorities one of — if not the most — important part of homeland security/disaster preparedness and response is its credibility with the public. There will always be skepticism about government communication, but the ability of the authorities to be able to be trusted during and after a crisis is vital. It’s in large part why a recent New York Times article worried me.

One of the great tragedies and surprises for the public in the aftermath of the September 11th World Trade Center attacks was learning that New York City first responders could not communicate on their radios during the rescue effort. The 9/11 Commission report said dealing with that problem should be a top priority.

Well, in an interesting article in the New York Times earlier this month by Edward Hyatt, “9 Years After 9/11, Public Safety Radio Not Ready,” indicates that almost a decade later the issue still exists. Hyatt writes:

The problem, highlighted in the 9/11 Commission Report, was seen again in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Public safety officers from different jurisdictions arrived at the scene of those disasters only to find that, unable to communicate with each other by radio, they had to resort to running handwritten notes between command centers.

Despite $7 billion in federal grants and other spending over the last seven years to improve the ability of public safety departments to talk to one another, most experts in such communications say that it will be years, if ever, before a single nationwide public safety radio system becomes a reality.

I would think a lot of readers must have been shocked to read that the connectivity issue remains. I am not enough of a technical expert to determine how reasonable this situation is. But this is type of unsolved problem that can really severely damage the government’s homeland security credibility, particularly if it is not explained to the public why it has not been dealt with (and may never be). I would hope that the officials at all levels would speak more about the lack of communications issue and not wait for the press to bring it up. If there is another situation like 9/11 and there are similar problems, it will be very difficult for the public to accept after all the discussions and hand-wringing about the issue.

But this question of government credibility should be viewed even broader, particularly in the area of communications. There is a lot of confusion among the public and in fact the government about how officials would communicate with its citizens and vice versa in a crisis. In fact, officials should be conducting an ongoing dialogue with the public on communications in general (ie. warning systems, IPAWS, reverse 9/11) which are evolving but are not currently up to speed.

But this ‘more is more’ approach to information is useful across the board when it comes to establishing and maintaining government credibility during and after a major crisis, particularly a terrorist attack. The time to talk about ‘dirty bombs’ and ’shelter in place’ is not after the incident but before. So, my strong hope is that government officials at the national, state and local levels are more forthcoming about the challenging issues they are dealing with so the public is not surprised to hear that problems they thought were being addressed have not been. Americans will be far more understanding if they are let into the ongoing discussion, and importantly their government will have more credibility with them.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • Technorati

Tags: City Preparedness · Preparedness Ideas

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scott McPherson // Sep 21, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Put this at or near the top of the (many) failures of DHS. This is a national shame.

  • 2 David Wild // Sep 21, 2010 at 11:02 am

    There is an interesting Urgent Communications article in the current issue ( about the gargantuan efforts needed to get communications working currently in a disaster area. It shouldn’t be this hard. The NPSPAC national interoperability frequencies (maybe along with the NIFOG guide) were probably the most useful (and least expensive) of all the efforts, along with ad-hoc interoperability measures like bridges, but the pace have change has been so slow (and is in some ways now even worse – instead of vhf/uhf we now have to deal with vhf/uhf/700/800/p25/analog/wide/narrow

  • 3 Gary Oldham // Sep 22, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Technology really has never been the issue. It’s much more of a sandbox issue than anything else. There was – and is – nothing more interoperable than a pair of VHF or UHF radios on the same frequency. Doesn’t matter who makes them, what feature sets they have, etc. In that scenario, though, spectrum limitations have been the issue.

    P25 is touted as an interoperability standard. It’s really a technical standard that doesn’t preclude interoperability. What it does do is make more efficient usage of the limited RF spectrum.

    I’ve been dealing with interoperability issues since the late 70s when I first became a part of Project FIRESCOPE. We’re still dealing with the same primary challenges in the interoperability area – human factors. Until everybody embraces ICS and NIMS and actually follows it (instead of simple lip service, saying “we’ll use it when the big one hits”, continuing to use radio codes instead of clear text, etc., we’ll never achieve interoperability. Instead, we’ll continue to demonstrate that interoperability isn’t nearly as important as continuing to do business the way we always have, despite an overwhelming preponderance of evidence proving that there IS a better way. I have several posts on this topic on my blog at

    This is a huge issue, and the public safety community must face up to it, genuinely adopt all the tenets and practices of ICS and clear text, and understand the genuine greater good for ourselves and others that come from it.

    Technology or the lack thereof is not now and has never truly been the impediment to interoperability.

Leave a Comment