Thursday, January 04, 2007

Homeland Security: Emergency Communications Ineffective*

Update: Edited to add links to the report and other useful information at the end of the piece.

Blue Girl in a Red State brought an article to my attention, one that I had meant to write about yesterday (before I got sidetracked at work). According to an article from Associated Press, only 6 of 75 cities "won the highest grades for their emergency agencies' ability to communicate during a disaster, five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks." Blue Girl has had some personal experiences with lack of interoperability, and some worthwhile suggestions for improvement.

While my experiences don't exactly parallel hers, I have dealt with interoperability issues as well, although with somewhat happier outcomes. One police department I worked for was supposed to work hand-in-hand with two others in the jurisdiction; the only way we could communicate "car-to-car", however, was for each agency to listen to the others on their frequencies (using scanners) and reply on our own. This process, called "cross-channeling" (or at least that's what we called it 30 years ago) was cumbersome, inefficient, and... oh, yeah, illegal, at least according to the FCC.

New York City has progressed significantly since the days of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, by installing radio repeaters in many of the city's skyscrapers, increasing cross-training between NYPD, FDNY, the Port Authority, and other emergency agencies. I think that consolidating the three main police dpeartments in NYC -- NYPD, Transit, and Housing -- also helped, by eliminating separate command-and-control structures.

There's still a lot of room for improvement, though. Some of it is technological in nature, as Blue Girl points out. Some is due to the very nature of emergency services (for instance, the on-going dispute between NYPD and FDNY over who has final incident command authority; in most communities, for example, the fire department is in charge of overall response, while the PD is the lead agency for criminal investigation aspects, a concept known as "unified command"). Some is due to the changing nature of the threats we face today, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago (although back in the 60's, we did have the Weathermen blowing things up).

Some aspects of interoperability are easy to change: many counties -- and even some states -- have established county- or state-wide radio frequencies for emergency use. Some, like Connecticut's "state hotline", are base-to-base, while others have the frequency available for car-to-car use (Connecticut was phasing in a state-wide car-to-car channel when I left civil service).

One recurring problem, however, is that often these frequencies are restricted, either to just the cops, or, at best, PD, FD, and EMS, with little or no thought for other agencies that have to respond in an emergency.

Consider a hypothetical emergency, say, a Category 5 hurricane in New Orleans. What agencies would respond? Obviously, the local and parish (county) police and fire departments, and Emergency Medical Services. Here are some others who would likely be called upon:

  • Public Works (debris removal)
  • Utilities (gas, water, and power are critical)
  • Transportation (making sure highways are clear for evacuation)
  • State Military Dept (otherwise known as National Guard, if there are any left locally)
  • Humane Society/ASPCA (animal rescue)
  • Red Cross, Salvation Army, other volunteer disaster-relief agencies and NGO's (non-governmental organizations)
  • Local, county, and state Health Departments (infection and disease control)
  • Amateur ("ham") radio operators (communications)
  • Transit Authority (buses for mass evacuation)
  • Construction contractors (heavy equipment)
  • Hotel/Motel operators (emergency housing)
  • Civil Air Patrol (airborne search operations)
  • Coast Guard Auxiliary/Power Squadron (marine search and rescue)
  • ... and probably dozens (or hundreds) of others

You think maybe it would be a really good idea if they could all communicate?

I don't have all the answers, of course. No one has all the answers. But if DHS and the emergency services community are serious about increasing interoperability, they all have to work together. They have to reach out to all agencies who could reasonably be expected to respond, to listen to those agencies, to accept their expertise in their own fields (which might well be the hardest part), and to work out acceptable compromises in order to develop a functional system.

* Yes, I swiped Blue Girl's headline.


1 comment:

  1. Shared willingly! :)

    Excellent job. Now if I can figure out this link thing - I haven't been able to do it since I upgraded to "new and improved" blogger...