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.