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Wireless And Emergency Response

This month has seen several reminders of the failures associated with September 11, 2001, including technological failures, and the long efforts to make sure they do not happen again.

The city’s new emergency operations center opened in Downtown Brooklyn. The primary goal of the new center is to utilize advanced technologies to improve coordination of emergency response efforts in the case of a large-scale disaster .

The federal Environmental Protection Agency announced new plans for a final cleanup in lower Manhattan of buildings contaminated by dust after the terrorist attack –- plans that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and others called inadequate. Although this is primarily a political and public health debate, technological shortcomings lie at the heart of it. Previous cleanup efforts failed because the agency was unable to distinguish reliably between trade center dust and other contaminants .

Starting next month, police, firefighters and other emergency responders will have for their use a new high speed wireless data network, at first activated only in lower Manhattan, but due to spread throughout the city by the Spring of 2008. In effect, New York City is investing $500 million with the defense and technology company Northrop Grumman to ensure that the communications breakdowns that occurred on September 11, 2001 never happen again .

9/11 Communications Breakdowns

As has been well documented, there were several communications failures on September 11, 2001. Although both police officers and firefighters responded heroically, there is no doubt that inadequate communications caused unnecessary deaths.

Many fire department radios either did not work at all, or only intermittently. Radios did not work well in high-rise buildings, subways or tunnels, and firefighters had difficulty determining which channel to use to relay information. Even with perfect communications equipment, the chaos on September 11 would have caused tremendous mayhem and carnage. But the equipment was far from perfect.

On the whole, police department radios were more reliable than the fire department’s radios. But police transmissions were hard to decipher in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Officers attempted to use their cell phones, but this was an unreliable mode of communication as well.

Since September 11 both the Police and Fire Departments have improved their communications capabilities. The Fire Department in particular has upgraded its radios, and invested in better equipment for boosting radio signals to the upper floors of high rise buildings.

Handheld radios are likely to remain the tool of choice for first responders for the next several years. But even the most sophisticated radio feels somewhat antique in our technologically advanced age.

City Hall’s contract with Northrop Grumma, to build a first-ever Citywide Mobile Wireless Network, will greatly enhance emergency response capabilities.

The Citywide Mobile Wireless Network

In September, the Bloomberg administration announced that Northrop Grumman had won a five-year contract to build the Citywide Mobile Wireless Network. The company defeated rival Motorola to capture the bid.

The wireless network will allow emergency responders to transmit information efficiently from state and federal anti-terrorism databases, as well as mug shots, fingerprints, and even streaming video. If necessary, information could be shared with multiple agencies simultaneously. During times of crisis, police officers, firefighters, and personnel from the Office of Emergency Management should be assured of reliable two-way communication between first responders on the scene and response managers at remote locations. And during routine periods, these enhanced capabilities should streamline communications and improve emergency response times. The network will be designed with the flexibility to work in sections of the city where wireless access is less reliable.

“One of the most important lessons learned from the September 11th attacks was that our emergency responders need better access to information and clearer lines of communication in the field,” Mayor Bloomberg said. In that spirit, a critical aspect of the new wireless network is that everyone in the emergency response arena will utilize it. This baseline fact should mitigate against departmental turf wars.

Northrop Grumman is scheduled to deliver a fully functioning wireless network by the spring of 2008. After that time, the company will maintain the network and provide appropriate upgrades. If the project proves a success, city officials have the option to renew the contract for up to 10 additional years.

Public Safety -- NYC's Niche For Wireless?

With the Northrop Grumman contract, City Hall clearly aims to be on the forefront of public safety wireless initiatives. Indeed, New York claims that this is the “most aggressive public safety technology initiative of any municipality.”

Some are skeptical since New York has moved much less aggressively than other cities to provide free or inexpensive wireless access to tourists and residents. Indeed, Information Technology and Communications Commissioner Cosgrave argues that it is not “feasible or necessary” to provide wireless access throughout the city.

Wireless activists and government officials will continue to debate the appropriate extent of public wireless access, and the ultimate results of that discussion are unclear. What seems more certain is City Hall’s desire to fill a specific niche as the leader in the use of wireless technology for public safety.


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