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Can You Hear Me Now? - Controlling Criminal Communications During a Critical Incident

By Gary MacNamara

If you haven’t experienced it yet, you will. Someday, somewhere, as you or your agency will respond to an incident, it will be there. Beyond the perimeters, past the Emergency Response Teams, Haz-Mat Teams, past the media, the officers, the fire fighters, and crowds. It just may change how you respond and how successful the outcome….
What is it? A new threat, gang, or crime trend? No.
A new weapon, explosive, or hazardous material? No.

It is the cellular telephone!

 With  the increase in the use of cellular telephones, from 33.8 million in 1995 to 270.3 million in 2008, “according to the Cellular Telephone Industry Association”,  emergency responders are now more than ever going to be confronted by their use while responding to an incident. Not just telephones, all cellular devices to include SIM cards, wireless cards and the myriad of other devices utilizing our frequencies.  What you may also discover is how both ill prepared and ill equipped we are to properly address threats and to safely resolve incidents where the use of these devices are involved. 

These cellular devices have changed all our lives in so many ways. Some changes have caused other changes… such as new laws created to prevent driver distraction. New technology always seems to create the need for change. Sometimes that change is easy, and other times the resistance seems to strong.

Emergency response personnel, as much as anyone else understand change. We should because we have to adapt to it constantly. Even a small change can cause responders to react with a great change.   We not only have to adapt to the direct change, we must prepare and plan for the secondary change. While most people adapted and welcomed the advances of the internet, investigators had to change and adapt to the secondary change of internet. Policies, evidence handling and the new criminal charges were just some of those secondary changes. Then, after preparing and planning for the secondary change, we have to convince others that they themselves must change to prevent themselves from becoming victims of crime, by protecting themselves and their money, as a result of the original change.  Just like a small stone dropped in a lake can cause a ripple effect across the water, one small change can cause a ripple of change in most of our lives.

Some people fear change, worrying about the unknown.  Others resist change, fearing it will disrupt established processes or rules. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States understood the power of complacency and how difficult change is when he was quoted as saying “If you want to make enemies, try to change something”.  He understood that change, even for the better, will always come with a little pain or a little resistance from some. There is comfort in what is normal or usual. Preparing for something different can be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make it any less important.   

The events of February 12th, 2002 on the campus of Fairfield University revealed what can happen when there is resistance to change. The incident began when a former student entered a classroom, claimed to have a bomb, and refused to let anyone leave. It ended almost 8 hours later when the final hostage, of the original 28, was released and the subject surrendered. As the hostage negotiator, conducting my first negotiation, I remembered my training, “Isolate to negotiate”. It always looks so easy in the movies.  Police respond, cut the phone lines, and control all communications with the subject. This was different.  Could twenty-seven students and a professor, held in the classroom, possibly mean twenty-eight cell phones, also in the classroom? Although the negotiations wouldn’t initially answer that question, they gradually revealed that whether it is one or twenty-seven cell phones in that classroom, cell phones were a disruption and hazard to the safety of the students held in the room, and to the safety of the hundreds of responders outside the room trying to help. Students calling radio stations and the hostage taker himself calling the media, led to difficulties in handling the incident.

My first thought was to not worry about it. Cell phones in the classroom should be no problem. Cellular phones have been around since the 1970’s, there must exist a way to deal with them to isolate the suspect. Sure there are no wires to cut, but Law enforcement technology must have changed with the new cellular technology. There has to be something we can do to isolate the cell phones.

Was I wrong? Well not exactly. The technology has changed. The rules haven’t. In fact, it appears that just as the technology has changed to allow for smaller, better, and longer lasting cellular telephones, so has the technology designed to disrupt it. Just don’t try to use it. It appears the FCC has found the change difficult to handle.
The operation of transmitters designed to jam or block wireless communications, commonly referred to as Multiple Frequency Disruptors (MFD’S), is a violation of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended (“ACT”). See 47 U.S.C. Sections 301, 302a, 333. The overall rule makes sense; we can’t allow anyone to shut down cell service. These regulations however, prohibit the procurement, possession, and operation of MFDs by local and state “emergency responders” under any circumstance. Need to disrupt cell service, to protect children on a school bus – prohibited! Need to disrupt frequencies for fear a suspicious package in a shopping mall might contain an explosive set to detonate with a cell phone – prohibited!  Have a suspected hazardous material and fear cellular detonation – Forget it! These regulations don’t allow emergency services any exceptions. And don’t think the FCC won’t enforce the rule, they will.  That’s right, use a disruptor at an incident and the criminals won’t succeed, people won’t be hurt, and the using agency can be fined for its use.

It must not be needed. Sure Cellular Technology has changed, but the need by Law Enforcement to disrupt that technology must not have changed.  Fairfield University in 2002, my first negotiation and my first experience with the problems cellular telephones can create for emergency responders; was an oddity, my first and last.  

Wrong.  A January 18, 2004 incident proved it, when a police officer barricaded himself in his Connecticut residence refusing to leave. Surely 17 hours is enough time for the police to isolate to negotiate, right?  Wrong, considering the barricaded officer used his cellular telephone for four hours talking to family and friends, saying his goodbyes prior to taking his own life. It’s a quick lesson in negotiations. It is hard to help a person in crisis without their full attention, and its hard to get that attention when they can call whomever they want, with no way for responders to stop it.

But it’s not just in Connecticut. Incidents all over the country reveal  how the lack of efficient, safe and effective ways to deal with cellular telephones in a crisis leaves “emergency responders” searching for other, more extreme and often less safe ways to address these threats. 

It is clear that  the threats and risks to emergency responders during the response to more traditional crimes and activities has been elevated due to the greater reliability on cellular communications, including drug trafficking, hostage taking, bank robberies, school violence incidents, hazmat incidents, etc. And it is not just small local issues where the threat is. Terrorists and other criminals have and remain capable of utilizing radio communications and devices such as cell phones to terrorize the world. Attacks that have occurred include, but are not limited to hostage-takeovers (Mumbai India, and other incidents) and deadly attacks on public transportation (Madrid Train Bombings, London Subway Attacks, and other incidents).  Additional threats exist and the potential for more attacks in various forms including the remote detonation of strategically placed EOD/IED (a suspicious package near a critical infrastructure, or even a school bus) seem imminent.

Are there solutions out there that could help emergency responders be better prepared to address some of the issues created by cellular devices at critical incidents? Yes, according to Kevin Otto of Enforcement Technology Group Inc (ETGI), a long time partner and supporter of emergency responders, frequency disruptors (MFDs) can be a solution. MFD’S are designed to provide a managed, controlled and directed area of disruption, focusing frequency containment of an incident.

 A contained incident is the first step toward resolution of an incident in a safe effective way.  Uncontained incidents tend to expand, often affecting a larger area with potentially more victims, for a longer period of time. And unlike more drastic steps responders often take to cut cell service, including shutting down towers which cuts service to a wide uncontrolled area, MFDs only affect the transmission of wireless devices in the immediate area, and communications through devices that are connected to networks through wires such as landline telephones, public telephones, as well as computers with wired Internet connections are not affected and still may be used. And MFDs are designed not to interfere with the 434 MHz Public Safety Communications Frequency Band.

Some say that allowing the use of MFDs for emergency responders will result in the unregulated and expanded use by private entities and civilians, but fail to realize they are already in use, at some restaurants and movie theaters. In October 2008, a Canadian police agency located an MFD in a vehicle occupied by a Hell’s Angels Motor Cycle Gang supporter.  

It’s ridiculous, says Kevin Otto, you can buy a disruptor on E-Bay, but emergency responders are forbidden.

Some also argue that disrupting the ability to use a cell phone during an emergency will limit others from making calls to provide further information to responders. MFDs are a tool for “emergency responders,” each and every incident requires proper assessment to determine which tools will be successful for circumstances that present themselves. Having those tools available at the time of an incident is what is important to allow for the successful and safe outcome of an incident thereby limiting the amount of time service disrupted. Some even argue that MFD use should be limited to Federal agencies responding to an incident. By nature, critical incidents are unpredictable, random, and initial response is almost always from State and local Emergency responders, who are on scene within minutes of the initial incident.  Quick deployment and use of an MFD, after scene assessment, is essential for limiting expansion of an incident to cause more property damage, and loss of life. Resources to accomplish this task must be at the disposal of Incident Commanders on scene, to utilize as needed. To not have them will cause unnecessary and costly delays, leading to potentially more injury and loss of life.

What can emergency responders do? Either respond to these incidents and complain when we don’t have the proper tools, or we listen to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said “We change, whether we like it or not”. 

In the early part of 2009 that’s  just what we did, as Fairfield Connecticut  Assistant Fire Chief Chris Tracy representing the Fire Service, Kevin Otto providing technological insight, and I, from Law Enforcement, began discussion and ultimately met with members of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s staff, to discuss how to put forth legislation modifying these outdated regulations. The change appears to be starting, as a 2009 article written by Spencer S. Hsu, in the Washington Post quoted a Lieberman spokeswoman as saying Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, plans to introduce legislation that would give law enforcement agencies "the tools they need to selectively jam" communications in the event of a terrorist attack.

It appears that change is coming but it is not here yet. There are those, most within the communications sector that fear this change. They believe it’s not needed, to drastic, or the problem is over exaggerated by the emergency responders. All of us in the emergency services need to actively push our legislators to support future legislation. They need to hear from us. They need to know of incidents occurring that could have been helped with such tools.

We all know that when confronted with change there are only two choices, one is to grow with the change; the other is to deny it, and fight it regardless of the consequences. This change is obvious, now here are the choices. Change the regulation to allow for properly controlled, limited, and directed disruption of frequencies for the safety of the public and its responders, or fight the change, placing the public and its responders at risk.

The real choice is clear. There are plenty of examples of how quickly change comes after a tragedy.  Hopefully this change will be different. Hopefully this change occurs before the tragedy, providing a great example of how things really can change when emergency services, Politicians and the Private Sector come together for the safety of the public. 

To show support for a change to allow for emergency services to utilize Frequency Disruptors, or to share an incident where a disruptor would have been useful, send an email to changetherule@sbcglobal.net.

Gary MacNamara is currently the Deputy Chief of Police in Fairfield CT., overseeing the Field Services Division, including patrol, detectives, special services, Marine Unit, Emergency Services Unit, and some support units.  Deputy Chief MacNamara has served as a patrol officer, detective, detective Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain.  Deputy Chief MacNamara has also served as a hostage negotiator, and team commander.  Deputy Chief MacNamara has acted as public information officer, Internal Affairs, and training Lieutenant.  Deputy Chief MacNamara is a Law Enforcement Certified instructor and a contributor to the Justice Journal, providing Special Analysis and writer of the column “What if”.  Deputy Chief MacNamara is Chairman of Connecticut Dept of Homeland Security Region 1 Training Committee and instructs on Crisis response and school violence.

Deputy Chief MacNamara holds a Bachelors Degree and Masters Degree from the University of New Haven, and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy session #219 and the FBI LEEDS session #81. 

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