Almost 10 years after the attacks on 9-11, lawmakers and first responders were on Capitol Hill Wednesday to discuss lessons learned from that tragic day as communications questions still linger for first responders.
Firefighters in the lobby of the World Trade Center apparently had less knowledge about what was going on than people a hundred floors above them. Communications gaps left first responders unable to talk to one another and were a contributing factor to the death of firefighter on September 11th. This problem emerged again during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the storm knocked many communication systems out, limiting the ability of first responders to talk to one another. The Communication problem was so bad that messengers were being used in New Orleans and the effectiveness of first responders was reduced by 90 percent.
At a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, lawmakers heard from those trying to solve the continuing problem about the problems communication failures can exacerbate.
"In an emergency if we do not have solid communications we will have chaos," the director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, Robert McAleer told the committee. But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Senate Committee, pointed out that "nearly $13 billion has been spent on communications in the last 9 years."
Smart phone capabilities were brought up but it's thought they lack the ruggedness, reliability and direct device to device connectivity of traditional public radio systems. There were also calls for a national public safety broadband wireless network.
Philadelphia's Police Commissioner, Charles Ramsey added that "commercial networks are not designed to serve our public safety needs" and said instead the nation's public alert and warning systems need to be strengthened.
Recent events like the Gulf Oil Spill and the tornado in Joplin, Missouri have allowed emergency personal to deploy new technology to improve communication gaps.
During the Deep Water Horizon Explosion, a mobile tower was launched within 24 hours, improving connectivity for the U.S. Coast Guard. And within weeks, a radio system added an interface called "Gulf Wing" that allows rapid connectivity on all levels of government.
The tornado that hit Joplin left a trail of devastation that included downed phone towers and cut communication lines. However, because of new standards and training, a 10 channel trunk system allowed for improved communications not only for emergency personnel, but to communicate with the public and lessen miscommunication and panic.
While more work remains to improve the system, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., the committee's chairman said that a lot of progress has been made and "we're in much better shape than we were in 10 years ago."