The inability of most firefighters and police officers to talk to each other on their radios on Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center — one of the most vexing problems on that day nine years ago — still has not been completely resolved.
The problem, highlighted in the 9/11 Commission Report, was seen again in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Public safety officers from different jurisdictions arrived at the scene of those disasters only to find that, unable to communicate with each other by radio, they had to resort to running handwritten notes between command centers.
Despite $7 billion in federal grants and other spending over the last seven years to improve the ability of public safety departments to talk to one another, most experts in such communications say that it will be years, if ever, before a single nationwide public safety radio system becomes a reality.
In the meantime, public safety and homeland security officials have patched together voice networks in some regions, including New York, that link commanders at various agencies. But the focus in Washington has turned to the development of the next generation of emergency communications, wireless broadband, which seeks to succeed where radio has failed.
Many of the issues that helped shape the current dysfunctional public safety radio networks threaten the creation of a uniform standard for wireless broadband communications.
“For a brief moment in time, a solution is readily within reach,” James A. Barnett Jr., chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s public safety and homeland security bureau, told a Congressional hearing this summer. “Unless we embark on a comprehensive plan now, including public funding, America will not be able to afford a nationwide, interoperable public safety network.”
Public safety groups, with the backing of some members of Congress, are arguing that they need to be given control of a larger chunk of broadband spectrum — the airwaves on which wireless devices communicate with each other — to ensure that they have adequate network capacity during emergencies.
Officials from the F.C.C. and other legislators disagree, saying that the best way to pay for and build a robust, affordable communications system is to auction some of the airwaves to commercial companies that can build a network and make it available to public safety agencies during an emergency.
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