National Network for First Responders Is Years Away

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During Hurricane Sandy, New York police commanders could talk by radio with fire department supervisors across the city, to officials battling power failures in nearby counties and with authorities shutting down airports in New York and New Jersey.

As routine as that sounds, it represented great strides in emergency communications. And it addressed one of the tragic problems of Sept. 11, 2001 -- that police and fire officials at the World Trade Center site could not reach one another by radio.

The recent positive developments still do not fulfill the post-Sept. 11 plans for a nationwide communications system for first responders. Emergency officials who showed up from other cities to help clean up after the hurricane could not talk to New York officials with the radios they had brought from home.

The fourth-generation cellphone technology on which the system is based does not allow, for the foreseeable future, emergency workers in one location to immediately contact each other directly. Rather than push a button on a device, walkie-talkie style, they have to dial a phone number, like any cellphone user, and worry about dropped calls.

Congress took years to set aside a special section of airwaves to accommodate a new emergency system, but it allocated only $2 billion for initial work. Communications experts say the system will require up to $10 billion more.

While an additional $5 billion of potential financing could come from the Federal Communications Commission's auction of newly cleared airwaves, that effort depends on the cooperation of reluctant television broadcasters and government agencies.

Hurricane Sandy also exposed a significant flaw in the initial design of the emergency system. It would rely greatly on commercial cellphone networks, the same networks that failed during the storm when cell towers blew down, power equipment failed and backup batteries or generators were flooded.

"To think that you can build a network that can withstand anything and everything that Mother Nature throws at it is a bit unrealistic," said Bill Smith, president of AT&T Network Operations. "It's not impossible, but it would be incredibly expensive."

New York's interagency system worked well both this year and last year during Hurricane Irene. It began operations within the city a few years after Sept. 11 and expanded to the surrounding suburbs two years ago, with the help of federal money.

That system transmits audio on normal radio waves, however, not over the wireless broadband network planned for the new nationwide broadband system. A broadband network already would allow first responders to exchange pictures, video and data like maps and building plans, but adding a push-to-talk audio link is five to 10 years away, officials say.

The hurricane made clear that relying on the networks of companies like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint had limits. "These networks failed when we would have needed them most," said Charles F. Dowd, a deputy chief who oversees the New York Police Department's communications division. "The idea of using commercial networks is a real concern for public safety."

Mr. Dowd serves on the board of First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, the new independent federal agency set up this year by Congress to design and build the new emergency system.

Several other members of that board visited New York after the hurricane to see the city's interagency network. "They clearly saw the difference between the performance of commercial and public safety networks," Mr. Dowd said. "They knew the new system cannot be built to commercial standards. It has to be at a higher level of redundancy and survivability."

In addition to making the technology work, the most pressing issue faced by FirstNet is cost. Congress set aside $2 billion for the FirstNet board to get the system into place.

An additional $5 billion in construction costs would be financed with the proceeds of the Federal Communications Commission's auctions of additional wireless airwaves, a priority of the F.C.C. chairman, Julius Genachowski, who has also pushed the public safety network up the agenda. But that will go only part of the way, most telecommunications experts contend.

The F.C.C. hopes to begin those auctions in 2014, but so far it has faced resistance from television broadcasters and government agencies, which hold the airwave licenses the commission wants to take back and sell.

FirstNet said it believed it would reach its ultimate goal of building a network that could be used by any public safety official in the United States, using a standard device that operates on the same frequencies as those of all other departments.

"We have the spectrum resources and the financial resources available to achieve that," said F. Craig Farrill, a longtime wireless communications executive and member of the FirstNet board who is overseeing the architecture of the network. "We're very optimistic." He noted that Congress had approved and set aside money for the project only in February, and that the board was only a couple of months old.

Current emergency systems do not provide the desired interagency connectivity because each city or county department designs radios to work on airwaves that are best suited to its own location. When rescue workers from the Midwest showed up in New Orleans to pitch in after Hurricane Katrina, for example, they found their radios would not allow them to connect with those used by local officials.

In 2010, the Commerce Department allocated $382 million in grants to seven public safety agencies to work on their own local communications systems. But in May, with more than $40 million already spent on plans and equipment, the Commerce Department suspended that work. It said it was afraid that those systems would not work seamlessly with the nationwide network it envisioned.

"It was a shocking waste of money to have invested in all that and then shut it down," said retired Rear Adm. James A. Barnett Jr., who until April headed the F.C.C.'s public safety division and is now an official at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a science and technology study group here.

The shutdown caused problems for Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and 10 Northern California counties that had received a $50 million grant from the Commerce Department to build a regional network. Now, after six months of idleness, some are losing patience.

"You can't expect local governments to just sit there and not use resources for several months while the federal government tries to make a decision on how to proceed," said Barry Fraser, interim general manager for the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications Systems Authority. "I don't know how much longer we can keep all of them on board."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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