By David Wood, Newhouse News Service
Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
WASHINGTON -- The next time disaster strikes, chances are the crowds of emergency and rescue personnel racing to the scene still won't be able to do a fundamental task: talk to one another.
Despite years of meetings and billions of dollars in federal spending, many police can't communicate with fire departments from the next county or state, never mind the governor's emergency operations center, state cops or the National Guard -- a problem that became sickeningly evident on Sept. 11, 2001, and again during Hurricane Katrina.
Why, with lives at stake, can't the world's leading superpower fix this?
David Boyd, who manages the issue for the Department of Homeland Security, admits the federal effort has been "erratic, uncertain and until recently, uncoordinated." It can't be resolved, he said, without "serious leadership commitment" and "setting egos aside."
Still, almost everyone blames federal bumbling.
"The feds are killing us," complained Mike Nucci, director of emergency management in Philadelphia. "DHS loves to have meetings and meetings. We don't have the time."
Bypassing the squabble
DHS "threw a lot of money at trying to connect the dots, but all they did was create more dots," said Sgt. 1st Class Tim Yancey, a communications specialist with the South Carolina National Guard.
Yancey operates what may be a solution: the ACU-1000, a box of electronics, about the size of a two-drawer file cabinet, that can connect incompatible local radios with the touch of a computer screen.
Guard units across the country have dozens of these units, manufactured by Raytheon, and intend to invest in more. Best of all, the ACU-1000 bypasses the squabbling between Washington and some 80,000 emergency jurisdictions nationwide. Boyd calls it "probably the most efficient, most effective fix now."
Most of the time, emergency managers say, they don't need what they call "interoperability." As a result, they invest in whatever radio fits their particular style, culture and budget.
But in New York on Sept. 11, Port Authority police couldn't talk to the fire commanders, who were out of touch with 911 phone operators; some fire chiefs couldn't reach their dispatch centers, and World Trade Center command radios couldn't reach the NYPD, according to the Sept. 11 Commission's final report. Things didn't go much better at the Pentagon, where fire and police rescuers found their radio channels oversaturated with too many people trying to talk at once. And while some pagers worked, too few had them.
Four years later, the response to Hurricane Katrina was hampered by "massive communications failure," a bipartisan congressional investigation concluded.
"Long-debated and unresolved issues with interoperability among federal, state and local communications systems complicated the efforts of first responders and government officials to work together in managing the response to Katrina," the committee said in its final report.
Tough to network
With DHS help, some urban regions are building networks among the agencies that would show up in a big disaster or terrorist attack. But it's a Herculean task.
San Diego County, for instance, has a county sheriff, county police and fire departments, 18 city governments, harbor police, and 28 local police and fire departments and must communicate with hospitals, schools, California National Guard, California Highway Police, and state and federal agencies.
While the technical difficulties of networking everyone together are daunting, Boyd and others say the larger problems involve culture and even language.
Local fire and police departments often have unique "10-codes," or shorthand radio-speak. "Let's say I ask you for a hazmat team," Boyd said. "Am I going to get a chemical decontamination van with 10 guys in white biohazard suits, or two guys in a pickup with Kitty Litter and push brooms?"
Then comes turf. Once San Diego decided to set up its network, it took just 30 days to get the hardware up and running. Forging agreements on how to use it took two years, Boyd said.
"It sounds easy, but each local jurisdiction has a mission to protect its community and they don't want to lose control," said Boyd, a former Army tank officer who has a doctorate in decision sciences.
Dozens of links
A quicker solution is the ACU-1000, which can be packed in a National Guard van or, in a sleeker version, flown in by cargo plane or chopper, together with equipment to link two dozen different communications devices for phone, Internet, satellite and video-conferencing capability on the spot.
This is what enabled Katrina's gruff military commander, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, to bellow blistering orders and verbal backslaps in cross-talk with the 82nd Airborne Division, New Orleans cops, Texas firefighters, civilian and Marine Corps helicopters, and Guard units from a dozen states.
On a touch-screen laptop computer, a Guard technician works like an old-fashioned telephone operator, connecting this fire chief to that FEMA official or National Guard outpost. And the entire system can be joined "daisy-chain" style to others to double or triple its capability.
But the trick in setting up emergency communications systems, experts say, is to ensure the system isn't overloaded with too many people trying to talk at once.
"This is the most dangerous piece of equipment ever invented," asserted Master Sgt. Dennis Goodman, who operates an ACU-1000 for the Virginia National Guard. "You connect everybody together, everybody can talk. And nobody can hear."
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David Wood can be reached at email@example.com.
First responders: Bridging networks a 'Herculean' effort