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October 30, 2007
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Communication systems that work across governmental lines

A handful of states are in the forefront of building communication systems that work across governmental lines.

Congressional Quarterly 
By Ellen Perlman 

Two years ago, a report came in of a plane crash on a grassy hillside near Anchorage's airport, in the middle of a park where children were having a picnic. First responders from the police, fire and EMS departments rushed to the scene, where they encountered lots of smoke and about 200 moaning or shouting victims. Some of the wounded ran at the responders, screaming for help, while others lay on the ground, bruised and bleeding. Soon, there was more major confusion. When many of the rescuers flipped on their radios and began to talk at once, the system jammed. Someone had to stop the verbal chaos in order for the rescue effort to continue.

That was Heather Handyside's job. She called on everyone to stop talking. "I used the finger-across-the-throat sign," says Handyside, Anchorage's director of emergency management and homeland security. "There was a cacophony of people talking to each other with no protocol." Fortunately, the plane crash was staged. All the trauma and blood came from good acting and lots of make-up. The exercise was a drill to test the readiness of first responders.

It was also a good test of the interoperability of a radio system that's been 10 years in the making--and not finished yet. The radio technology worked just fine. It was how the people used it that hit more bumps than the plane. Things were going smoothly while the plane was in the air. The shift in command went well, during a switch from Federal Aviation Administration command to the Federal Bureau of Investigation when the wheels touched down. Normally, there's a stutter step during such a command change. The Tower of Babel scene didn't start until the ground response began. "I thought it would be my moment of glory," says Handyside. Instead, protocol lessons on how to communicate were put on the to-do list.

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