NYT: Congress Should Heed Warnings of 9/11 Commission and Improve Communications for First Responders

Rockefeller-Hutchison Efforts Touted

May 23, 2011

Rockefeller and Hutchison hold hearing on public safety.WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the New York Times today editorialized on the need for a dedicated, nationwide communications system for first responders.

Chairman Rockefeller is leading the charge to pass legislation, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, which would create this network and give first responders the tools they need to do their jobs. 

The full editorial follows:

Chilling Echoes From Sept. 11: There’s still no national emergency communications network 

As the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania draws near, one of the main recommendations of the 9/11 Commission remains unfulfilled: the creation of a common communications system that lets emergency responders talk to one another across jurisdictions.

The problem was laid bare in the tragic cacophony at the World Trade Center, where scores of firefighters perished as police and fire officials couldn’t communicate on antiquated radio systems before the second tower fell. 

Four years later during Hurricane Katrina, emergency workers from across the nation faced the same dangerous problem. They had to resort to running handwritten notes to warn of shifting conditions. 

Congress should be haunted by the threat of new disasters finding rescue workers still incommunicado. Responsible lawmakers can mark the 10th anniversary by passing legislation to finally create a national public safety communications network.

The overall challenge is more complex than it sounds, touching on questions of financing, broadcast spectrum fights, technology innovation and turf battles among local public safety agencies. 

Congress can begin cutting through a lot of that by approving the reallocation of radio spectrum to wireless broadband providers and public safety agencies. This would allow creation of a modern emergency system providing common access when needed by voice, video and text for responders now using separate voice systems typically jammed up in emergencies.

Senator John Rockefeller IV, chairman of the science and transportation committee, is championing the commission’s dedicated spectrum approach, warning that the faulty emergency communication on 9/11 was “probably the greatest killer other than the planes themselves.” He has the support of the ranking Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. 

Crucial details remain to be settled. 

Would a nonprofit corporation best manage the new network? What’s the best way to get commercial broadcasters to yield needed spectrum—through incentive auctions proposed by the Obama administration?

Once Congress acts, this new generation of wireless broadband would require years of infrastructure construction. In the meantime, public safety and homeland security officials across the nation have been tapping into billions in federal aid designed to patch improvements into existing voice systems.

Critics warn there’s been too much reliance on buying hardware and not enough on planning and coordinating among fiefdoms still reluctant to come to terms on single useful systems. In New York, where the scars of 9/11 remain raw, there is not yet a fully compatible system among police officers, firefighters and Port Authority forces, but officials insist they are making progress. 

How many warnings does Congress need? How many more people will be endangered because of bureaucratic wrangling or political inertia? “Further delay is intolerable,” the commission’s leaders, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, declared earlier this year. They are right.

This editorial appeared in the New York Times on May 23, 2011.