By William Fisher
On September 11, 2001, a New York City police helicopter hovered above the World Trade Center.
Two minutes earlier, the first of the twin towers had collapsed. It would be twenty-one minutes before the second tower was to collapse.
“About 15 floors down from the top, it looks like it’s glowing red,” the pilot of one helicopter radioed. “It’s inevitable.”
Seconds later a second pilot radioed, “I don’t think (the second tower) has too much longer to go. I would evacuate all people within the area of that second building.”
New York City police received the call to evacuate the buildings. Fire and
rescue personnel did not because they operated on a different radio system. As a result, dozens of police officers and several hundred fire and rescue personnel perished in the collapse.
At the Pentagon, where emergency personnel from 50 different public safety agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia responded, no communication was possible between fire companies of different jurisdictions, or to the Arlington County, Virginia, fire chief who had overall command at the scene.
These failures bubbled back into people’s consciousness again four years after that fateful day with the release of thousands of pages of oral histories recorded by survivors and victims. The gut-wrenching tapes were obtained from the New York City Fire Department after The New York Times sued the city under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed over forty years ago to give citizens greater access to government documents.
Why did communications systems fail so totally in a country renowned for its technological prowess?
Public safety agencies including first responders, such as firefighters, police officers, and ambulance services, are heavily dependent on wireless radios.
Wireless technology requires radio frequency capacity, known as spectrum, in order to function, and existing wireless technology is designed to work within specified frequency ranges. On 9/11 there was no spectrum allocated to public safety – and there still isn’t.
Different operations, different applications, different rules and standards, and
different radio frequencies are among the problems first responders faced in trying to communicate with each other. Interoperability, also referred to as compatibility or connectivity, refers to the capability for these different systems to readily contact each other.
As a result, there was little communication between New York City Police Department and fire department commands even though an Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had been set up after the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. The OEM's command center was located on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center, a building near the twin towers.
When police officials concluded the twin towers were in danger of collapsing and ordered police to leave the complex, fire officials were not notified.
Four years on, families of victims, policy makers, and ordinary citizens are asking: ”Could it happen again”?
And, according to virtually every expert, the answer is ‘yes’.
Though literally scores of legislative proposals have been introduced in Congress, funding for the first steps in design of a robust architecture for emergency communications and allocation of essential radio spectrum was not signed into law until 2003. And neither job is completed as yet.
In fiscal 2006, the DHS plans to spend $1.7 billion on state and local preparedness, but only $20 million for radio interoperability funding for police, fire and medical first responders.
DHS claims it is making progress in achieving interoperability of emergency systems nationwide but acknowledges it is dealing with a long-term problem.
But, in a new report, “America’s First Responders and the Federal Budget: A Study of Rhetoric Versus Reality,” the First Response Coalition (FRC),says “first responders will be underfunded by $100.2 billion by 2008”. FRC is an advocacy group of 40,000 police, fire fighters, emergency workers and private citizens.
Todd Main, director of FRC, says, “The overall lack of resources is creating new hardships for police, fire, and EMS departments. We need to make sure that the promised money is available at that basic communication needs get squared away immediately. It is simply wrong for policymakers to promise needed funds to first responders and then fail to deliver.”
The magnitude of the task facing the DHS was underlined by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In a 2004 survey of 192 cities, it found that 60% of respondents indicated that city public safety departments did not have interoperability with the state emergency operations center and 88% did not have interoperability with the DHS.
There are over 2.5 million first responders in the United States, comprising 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, 26,000 fire departments, and more than 6,000 rescue departments.
Availability of radio spectrum remains among outstanding problems. The designated channels are currently held by TV broadcasters and are to be cleared as part of the move from analog to digital television (DTV). But this probably will not happen until 2009.
Making matters worse are a slew of human factors. Experts identify as most serious the turf wars relating to control issues that are ongoing between first responders in the same cities – in New York City, police and firefighters are still bickering over who’s in charge of what – not to mention the turfing at the state-federal level and among federal agencies.
“The key problem here is, and continues to be, the inability of people to put aside egos and address this on a regional basis, not on a stovepipe basis,” said William Jenkins, Director of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency that has done a number of studies of the 9/11 communications breakdown.
Experts cite reluctance by local governments and states to have Washington “mandate” a solution from the top, especially one that would require more local spending for updated equipment. Unfortunately, neighboring communities often started out with requirements for systems with vastly different capabilities with interoperability being low on the list.
“We don't have another 20 years,” says Congressman Bart Stupak,
co-chairman of the House of Representatives Law Enforcement Caucus and a 12-year police veteran from Michigan.
“There has been a serious lack of commitment from this administration and from Congress,” he says.
The 9-11 Commission Report said there is "strong evidence that compatible and adequate communications among public safety organizations at the local, state and federal levels remains an important problem...Federal funding of such (interagency communication) units should be given high priority..."
That some progress is now being made, albeit at a pace many consider glacial, may provide little comfort to 9/11 families.