10 Years After 9/11, Emergency Networks Emerge

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The nation's darkest day helped illuminate a terrible flaw in our ability to communicate during a major crisis.

Incompatible systems and swamped public networks helped add to the already-grim death toll. And while there have been many vows to fix the problem over the past 10 years, a report card this week still gives our emergency communications systems an F.

"A decade after 9/11, the nation is not yet prepared for a truly catastrophic disaster," said a report released Wednesday by the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group.

The same however, cannot be said about New York City.

Maybe it is because New York operates under the assumption that it is a top target of terrorists. Or quite possibly it's because Mayor Mike Bloomberg -- an IT industry giant -- runs the city with technology as a top item on the agenda. But whatever the reason, New York has not waited idly for a federal solution to its emergency communications system.

NYCWiN

While each city agency -- fire, police, emergency management, Port Authority, Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Environmental Protection -- have overhauled their communications systems since 9/11, probably the most sweeping change has been overseen by the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In 2006, the agency started work on a wireless broadband network called New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN). The network, run by Northrop Grumman ( NOC), uses IPWireless 3G and 4G LTE equipment. According to the city, the network is comprised of 400 cell sites in all five boroughs and covers more than 300 square miles.

It's a high-speed data network that serves all city agencies, but was designed as a separate and secure network for first responders. As a broadband system, it provides services like streaming video and big file deliveries like maps, mug shots and fingerprints.
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"You have to remember that 10 years ago, not everyone had a cell phone; now we use many devices and data services. Voice communications isn't necessarily the first thing you think about," said DoITT spokesman Nicholas Sbordone.

And while other major cities like Chicago and San Francisco have designed their own comprehensive, multi-agency emergency communications systems, the goal of a national solution still seems very far off.

Public Safety Network

In June, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W. Va.) said the absence of a first responder network was a "travesty" and that he would try to fix it this year.

Rockefeller, along with colleague Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R., Texas), introduced a bill S. 911 that would help start the process of building a national public safety network that uses wireless spectrum set aside in the so-called D Block -- or 10 MHz of spectrum that is due to be auctioned to commercial operators.

However, with a budget crisis threatening and the economy teetering, Washington's focus has been occupied by fiscal issues and is far too jammed to get the S 911 bill to a vote. According to mobile communications magazine Urgent Communications, wireless sector sources have said they don't expect a D Block vote until late September -- at the earliest.

In a statement from his office, Rockefeller said he hoped the Senate would find this the right time to take up the issue.

"I'm pushing the full Senate to pass my public safety legislation, which would create a high-tech nationwide network allowing first responders to communicate with each other in an emergency," Rockefeller said in the statement. "It's time we put our best technology to work for the safety of the American people and for the police and firefighters and emergency professionals who put their lives on the line to protect us. I hope the 10th anniversary of 9/11 will be the catalyst that causes Congress to act on my bill."

Grassroots Options

Meanwhile, every town and city faces its own daily communications challenges, which has driven some, by either necessity or by innovative tech opportunity, to create their own systems.

This more grassroots approach has been popular in some communities like New York's Putnam County (about 50 miles north of New York City), which provides each of its volunteer ambulance corps and fire departments with a system called Iamresponding.com, designed to supplement the 911 system.

As a 911 call goes out over the dispatch system, first responders are also notified via e-mail, text message or pager via the Iamresponding system. They then dial an 800 number and punch in a single-digit code that immediately displays their ETA from the scene on a screen, both in the firehouse and at the dispatching center. The dispatcher and team leaders are able to tell quickly who is responding, their rank and how far away they are.

People who have used the system describe it as a big asset to the conventional system, which relies solely on radio-to-radio contact only once a responder arrives at the firehouse or ambulance. Using Iamresponding, details of emergencies are clearer, team leaders are able to more quickly build a first-responder team and minutes are saved for people responding to calls.

There is hope that in the absence of a federal system that as technology advances, the market and agency cooperation will inevitably determine what approach works best.

--Written by Scott Moritz in New York.

To contact this writer, click here: Scott Moritz, or email: scott.moritz@thestreet.com.

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