Attempts to save victims of Hurricane Katrina were severely handicapped when rescue workers could not communicate with dispatchers to call for assistance, or to report what they'd seen. Similar problems can occur any day in our region on a somewhat smaller scale during a fire or a police chase, especially when emergency responders from multiple cities are involved.
When paramedics, firefighters, police, the National Guard and other emergency responders cannot communicate, lives are at risk. This month, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to make a decision that could dramatically affect the quality of public safety communications systems in the United States for decades to come. We must hope they make a good decision. Especially in the wake of 9/11, the United States needs a coherent nationwide system for public safety.
By tradition, every police department, fire department and emergency medical service makes its own decisions about which purchases meet local needs, and this policy usually applies to communications infrastructure. There are matters best left to independent local decision makers without coordination, but not this one.
With more than 50,000 public safety agencies nationwide, this policy produces a tangle of incompatible systems. Emergency responders end up with communications systems that fail more often than they should and cost more than they should. A nationwide system would save taxpayers money in the long term; but in the short term, the transition would require money and leadership from the federal government. So far, our federal government has been unwilling or unable to provide either.
This year, the FCC has been considering a new approach. When the United States switches from analog to digital TV in 2009, a large block of valuable spectrum will become available. The FCC may make some of that spectrum available to one or more commercial companies that would serve emergency responders, while also serving the general public.
This approach has the potential for tremendous benefit. Commercial companies would build a vital piece of national infrastructure at their own expense. While emergency responders need access to a great deal of capacity during emergencies, their communications needs are modest most of the time, which means this capacity usually can be available to paying customers. In return for serving emergency responders, commercial companies may get access to spectrum currently intended exclusively for public safety, or they may get spectrum licenses worth billions of dollars at a discount, or both. If this is done well, everybody benefits.
The problem comes from a tension between serving the public at the lowest possible cost and serving public safety. Public safety requires a more dependable and more secure service, and they need that service in every location where an emergency might occur, even if there are few paying customers there.
Will the companies provide adequate service for public safety needs? Will they serve the entire nation, or just a few large cities? This scheme works only if the FCC creates a new mechanism with real power to ensure that public safety needs will be met. Despite lobbying pressure to place few limitations on commercial companies, the FCC must take the task of protecting public safety seriously.
Whatever the result at the FCC, it is good to see serious attempts to address this important national issue. The FCC would have more options if Congress, the White House, and the Department of Homeland Security were more actively involved, but this has not happened.
The city of Pittsburgh, and many other municipalities, are taking steps to improve their public safety communications systems. Sometimes, the federal government provides a bit of assistance. Minor assistance is not enough. The federal government must start providing strategic vision, funding, technical assistance and above all, leadership.
Jon M. Peha is professor of engineering and public policy, and associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking, Carnegie Mellon University.