Upgrading first-responder comm problems not an easy fix

One of the problems that Katrina has put into bold relief is the impact of cascading communication snafus on the quick response to disasters. Congress is now calling for upgrading first-responder communications. But it's not as easy as picking a technology and throwing money at it. My experience with the Salt Lake Olympics sheds some light on the nitty-gritty issues.

One of the problems that Katrina has put into bold relief is the impact of cascading communication snafus on the quick response to disasters.  First-responder communications were hampered by systems that were down and systems that couldn't talk to each other.  I heard one story of a radio repairman sent into fix some of the police radios who wasn't let through the roadblock because the state troopers couldn't get on the radio to verify his identity.  Talk about deadlock!

Congress is now calling for upgrading first-responder communications.  This isn't a new problem.  When I was Utah CIO we dealt with these issues all the time.  Because of the Salt Lake Olympics, Utah was blessed with federal money to upgrade some of its public safety radio systems.  The new system ran on 800MHz, one of the bands the FCC has set aside for new public safety networks.  There were significant problems beyond the obvious financial question of how to pay for it:

First, as usual,  comes governance.  To build and operate the 800MHz network, Utah created the Utah Communications Agency Network, an interlocal agency with representation from Utah Dept. of Public Safety and numerous police, sheriff, and fire departments along the Wasatch Front.  UCAN has by-laws, an executive committee and an executive director.  These things don't run themselves.  There's some squabbling among members who feel the state (which pays the lion's share of the operational budget) has undue power.  Some jurisdictions have refused to play because of the cost (each radio costs the jurisdiction so much per month).  Some have built their own.  In general, there's a lot of testosterone involved in decisions made by police and sheriff departments.  Managing the egos can be the toughest job of all.

Second is coverage.  Utah is a big state.  The UCAN network covers about 80% of the population, but only 20% of the State's land area.  That's better than nothing, but problems can occur outside populated areas as well (such as critical infrastructure protection). 

Third is interoperability.  Just picking a technology (800MHz, in this case) doesn't cut it.  There are other players such as the National Guard, first responders from other states, and federal agencies like the FBI, Secret Service, and even the Forest Service and BLM. Dave Fletcher, head of Utah's IT Services group listed communications interoperability among his top ten accomplishments for 2004:

Utah Wireless Integrated Network Phase I Voice integration of multiple state networks including the UCAN 800 MHz trunked system in the Wasatch Front, the Utah National Guard, the State Repeater System, Salt Lake City's 800 MHz network, Salt Lake County, and the State VHF law enforcement network was achieved on schedule in July and tested in a multi-level homeland security exercise coordinated by the Utah National Guard.

Fourth, in 2005, data is as important as voice -  sometimes moreso. first-responders rely on getting to data networks in a big way. Utah's initial 800MHz system was voice only.  That's slowly being fixed, but all that costs money, takes time, and exacerbates financial and governance woes.  

When you first hear about communications foul-ups, its easy to underestimate the problem and think, "That's easy to solve."  Of course, then we have yet another disaster and ask "why do we continue to have communications problems?"  This isn't easy, there's little glory in it, and when you do it right no one pats you one the back and says "Hey, I noticed there weren't any problems!"  This is one that takes real leadership and perseverance. 

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