Communicating in a disaster

Even as the U.S. rushes to aid Haiti, we have to ask ourselves that question. By coincidence, the day the Haiti earthquake hit, leading police chiefs, fire chiefs, and sheriffs representing tens of thousands of public safety officers throughout the U.S. visited policymakers and members of Congress in Washington. Their purpose was to request that Congress devote more radio frequency spectrum for the creation of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

{mosads}This impressive and unusual show of unity among the diverse public safety community is evidence of a much larger message to the nation: The United States must have a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband wireless network. This network will help provide first responders with the reliable, interoperable broadband communications they need and will address a glaring vulnerability in our nation’s emergency communications and response capabilities. The creation of this public safety network is not inevitable; it will take concentrated effort and leadership.

It’s been more than eight years since the tragic Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against our nation and over four years since the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, yet we still lack nationwide reliable, interoperable communications for America’s first responders.

Despite commendable efforts, we have not achieved an acceptable level of interoperability in public safety voice communications. These efforts started long before 9/11 and, for many reasons, could go on for decades without achieving success.

In today’s high-tech world, it is almost unthinkable that firefighters cannot effectively communicate with police officers or paramedics seamlessly during emergencies. There are situations where first responders must carry with them up to seven communications devices if they truly want to reach colleagues of varying disciplines and uniforms in emergencies.

Investment in a public safety broadband wireless network is critical. Broadband is the best prospect for real interoperability. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to form public-private partnerships in order to leverage commercial technology and resources. However, to take advantage of this opportunity, funding is required to ensure that public safety has the coverage, redundancy and resiliency it requires.

We must work together to implement a national framework with appropriate funding support that will give public safety the interoperable broadband communications they need, utilizing the most advanced technologies, uniformed technical standards, and economies of scale. We must invest now in our first responders. We should not wait for a disaster to make us wish that we had.

Barnett is a retired Navy rear admiral who is serving as the Federal Communications Commission’s Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

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