Summer approaches -- reminding us of last August’s
blackout -- increased threats of terrorist attacks and
the need for high-security around the Republican
National Convention make it vital to assess what city
officials are doing to insure that the city’s
emergency communications systems are fully
operational. These include the 911 and E-911 (for
mobile phones) systems, radio spectrum for public
safety communications, and a high-speed wireless
911 and E-911
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered an overhaul of the city’s
911 system after the failure in late March that caused
the emergency system to shut down for two hours due to
a Verizon employee error. The overhaul would make the
system faster, more reliable and more efficient.
Under the plan, the city’s eight dispatch centers will
be consolidated into two.
"The world continues to get more complicated, but
responding to emergencies quickly and with the right
resources still makes the difference when lives are at
risk," Bloomberg reportedlysaid through a spokesman.
"So whatever we can do to integrate and streamline
our dispatch systems will only protect the people of
New Yorkers have paid $281 million in taxes on their
telephone bills to improve 911 since 1992 but the
system -- which handles about 12 million calls a
year -- still lags behind. Last year, the 311 system
was introduced to handle non-emergency calls in order
to alleviate the burden on the 911 system.
Similarly, cell phone customers are paying $1.20 a
month for “enhanced 911,” a service that enables the
location of callers to be traced, according to NY1
However, only 12 cents per bill is going to the E-911
project while the rest is being used for the state’s
general emergency fund. The upgrade was prompted by
the deaths of four teenagers who drowned when their
boat sank after a failed 911 call.
Radio Spectrum for Public Safety
Increased cell phone use is interfering with public
safety communications according to a City
Council hearing on radio spectrum held in March. This is because
public safety uses overcrowded radio systems, share
channels with other agencies and share the same
bandwidth with private cellular providers.
“During crisis,” said Councilmember Gale Brewer, “our
first responders need reliable communication systems.
Spectrum is important because it is the â€highway’
through which first responders communicate with each
other. A shortage of spectrum jeopardizes the lives
and health of our courageous public safety officials
and threatens their ability to protect the lives of
Currently, there are two plans for dealing with this
overcrowding and the danger that it presents for
emergency communications. One option, proposed by the
Association of Public-Safety Communications
and dubbed the “Consensus Plan,” would try to untangle
public and private users of spectrum. Nextel
Communications has committed $850 million for this
initiative. Another option, the “Balanced Approach”
as proposed by Verizon, would maintain current
spectrum allocations and resolve problems on a
Currently, the Department of Information Technology
and Telecommunications (DoITT) is supporting the first
proposal. The issue is unlikely to be resolved before
January 2007, which is the deadline for the transfer
of spectrum as part of pending federal legislation
called the HERO Act.
In the meantime, the office is exploring other ways to
improve the city’s emergency communications including
using high-speed wireless technology to expand the
capabilities of public safety workers. For example,
sending building maps to firefighters on the scene or mug
shots to police officers.
High-Speed Wireless Back-up Network
On May 5, Governor Pataki announced the commitment of $10
million dollars in funding from the Empire State
Development Corporation to build a high-speed wireless
network in Lower Manhattan. The announcement was made
in response to a proposal by the Downtown Alliance
for the development of a
redundancy system that would allow telephones and the
Internet to function in an emergency. The network
reportedly would be the first such project
in a major business district in the country.
“To further help businesses thrive in the post
September 11th world, we must make Lower Manhattan
into a commercial district with truly cutting-edge
telecommunications infrastructure," Pataki said. "Let’s install a
wireless data network that will enable downtown’s
businesses to broadcast their data through secure
channels to satellite locations."
The “Lower Manhattan Wireless Redundancy System” is
intended to make the telecommunications infrastructure
more reliable and resistant—allowing businesses to
continue to be connected with the world during a
disruption. Wireless technology uses airwaves—instead
of fiber optic cables or copper wires--to send
communications over the Internet. While the network
is primarily intended for data, it could also be used
The state funding will cover the basic
infrastructure--roof-top antennas on Lower Manhattan’s
tallest buildings—that could be put in place in about
six months. The antennas would be connected to
locations other parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn or New
Jersey. The network uses laser light, non-visible
infrared wavelengths and radio microwaves to send
signals up to one mile without wires—significantly
farther than wireless â€hot spot’ technology which only
ranges between 300 and 1,000 feet.
Since September 2003, the Downtown Alliance has been
operating a free public wireless network
that has eight
â€hot spots’ in Lower Manhattan including Bowling Green
Park, City Hall Park and South Street Seaport.
Both small and medium-sized businesses and large
corporations benefit from these networks because they
are inexpensive, secure and reliable. However, large
corporations are unlikely to move to Lower Manhattan
without a back-up communications system. Thus, the
new project is vital for maintaining the economic
competitiveness of downtown New York as a thriving
business district. It will also insure reliability
for public safety communications in an emergency.
LACK OF EMERGENCY VOLUNTEERS
earlier this month
at Baruch College, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller announced the results of a
survey on the city’s emergency preparedness. The
survey showed that out of 160 community organizations,
over 70 percent have not been informed by the City on
how to prepare for an emergency.
“Unfortunately, New York City still does not have a
comprehensive, coordinated and borough-oriented system
to recruit, register and deploy emergency volunteers,”
said Speaker Miller. “That over 90 percent of community
organizations have never been informed by the city on
how to become emergency volunteers is wholly
unacceptable. The city must do more to assist
neighborhoods and improve these organizations’ ability
to offer community residents real emergency
CITY COUNCIL'S NEW WEB SITE
More details about the summit can be found on the
council’s new Web site http://www.nyccouncil.info
The new site is a welcomed improvement because the Web
address is much easier to remember and it has a number
of useful features, as Speaker Miller himself points out in an article for Gotham Gazette, The Rise of the E-Citizen.
Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.
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