Gaps in disaster communications are failing first responders and citizens

Gaps in disaster communications are failing first responders and citizens
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As public safety leaders and longtime citizens of cities directly impacted on Sept. 11, 2001., frontline workers’ responses deeply affected us. What happened that day continues to inform our approach to public safety and inspires us to work harder.

Twenty years ago, the frontline workers who responded to the horrific attacks in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania were unable to share a simple radio message and communications networks were overwhelmed. 

Interoperability — the ability of the frontline to communicate with each other even if they use different telecom carriers — is critical to allow them to do their jobs safely and effectively and keep Americans safe. It allows first responders to coordinate their actions with full situational awareness of what is happening around them. 

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However, because of technology — and quite frankly, bureaucracy — interoperability has long been a problem in the public safety community. While agencies using the same carrier can communicate within their network, another jurisdiction assisting in the event of a crisis which is on another network, cannot. The fact is, agencies must retain the ability to choose their network, and that freedom of choice should not prevent effective communication in an emergency if another jurisdiction is on a different network. 

The ongoing barrage of natural and manmade disasters that have occurred in the past 20 years are a clear demonstration of the continuing challenge. From Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to a mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater later that year, first responders were extremely hindered in their ability to communicate with one another, thus putting their safety and the people they have sworn to protect in jeopardy.

Then in December of last year, a bombing in downtown Nashville damaged a key network facility resulting in phone and data outages across hundreds of miles, and numerous states, making it difficult for public safety agencies to communicate with each other and for citizens to reach these agencies.

But there is no need to even go back to last year or even last month when an extremely telling example is happening right now. In the wake of Hurricane Ida’s devastation in New Orleans, the entire 911 call center crashed and remained offline for 13 hours, preventing emergency calls from coming through and forcing public safety agencies to use social media to communicate critical information to the public.

The outages in New Orleans show that while much progress has been made since 9/11 — including the introduction of Mission Critical Push to Talk functions which enabled responders to communicate during the recent building collapse in Surfside — there is still much work to be done to reach the ultimate goal called for by the public safety community and promised to us by Congress after Sept. 11: Real interoperability that enables all public safety agencies to flawlessly communicate during times of crisis, regardless of carrier or device.

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Given the progress that has been made, this goal is achievable if the public and private sector entities that committed to working together 20 years ago can do so again to finish the job. We believe this can happen if only all technology providers come together on four things.

First, barriers and restrictive practices that limit real-time communication and collaboration between frontline workers must be removed. Regardless of carrier or device, all frontline workers must be able to communicate and share information seamlessly during times of crisis. 

Second, agencies must retain the freedom to select which carrier and devices work for them, without concern for whether they will be able to communicate with other agencies in an emergency. Competition means innovation, and innovation leads to better communication and tools for frontline workers, which means safer communities. 

Third, safeguards must be implemented to ensure security and resiliency against threats. And fourth, new technologies must be compatible with existing equipment and networks to prevent disruptions to public safety services. 

The goal of achieving interoperable communication for all public safety agencies is attainable and the path is clear. To that end, we are issuing a call to action to all public and private sector entities — including communications and technology providers, legislative and regulatory bodies, and public safety agencies — to come together to keep our first responders safe by finally creating truly interoperable networks that allows all first responders the ability to communicate freely with each other and without interruption during a crisis or disaster.  

First responders risk their lives every day to keep our nation safe. So as a nation, we have a moral obligation to ensure they are afforded every resource — including real interoperability — to protect their safety, so they can protect ours. 

Bill Bratton is the former New York City Police Department (NYPD) commissioner and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) chief. Charles Ramsey is the former chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia and Philadelphia Police Department commissioner. Sal Cassano is the former commissioner of the New York City Fire Department. Ed Plaugher is the former chief of the Arlington County Fire Department in Arlington, Va. Dr. Jerry Hauer is the former commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. Karen Tandy is the former administrator for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. They are all members of the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council.