WASHINGTON – Unless police, firefighters and other emergency responders end turf wars and talk to each other during disasters, billions of dollars spent on high-tech communication systems will go to waste, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Monday.
Chertoff said the value of the technology provided through federal grants has been diminished by local and state disagreements over control of the equipment.
"What these various turf issues mean — or these lack of priority issues mean — is that first responders, even if they're given the tools, don't have the availability to use these tools to share vital information," Chertoff said. "And therefore lives and property are put at risk."
Chertoff said his department has provided $2.1 billion over the last three years to buy the equipment and train emergency responders to use it. "I've actually seen this stuff work," he told a communications conference.
But police and fire officials said those funds only scratch the surface of what's needed nationwide.
Most emergency workers — like police, firefighters, and hospital staff — do not talk to each other on the same radio frequency, hobbling a fast and coordinated response. Those communications gaps proved fatal during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when responders from different agencies at the World Trade Center in New York were unable to coordinate rescues — or receive information that could have saved their own lives.
In a report card issued last December, members of the former 9/11 Commission that investigated government missteps leading to the attacks gave a failing grade to efforts to hook up emergency responders. "It is scandalous that police and firefighters in large cities still cannot communicate reliably in a major crisis," the commission members concluded.
Officials representing U.S. police and fire departments acknowledged some turf squabbles over the communication systems — including which responders should have access to it, what codes should be used and who, overall, would be responsible in disasters with overlapping authorities.
But they said the costs of getting the technology in hand still far exceed what's been provided.
"The price tag to get them all to interoperability — down at the line level where a cop can talk to EMS directly — is going to be vastly more expensive," said Joseph G. Estey, police chief in Hartford, Vt., and immediate past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
He said $2.1 billion "does not even begin to address it on the scale that it needs to be addressed."
So far, public safety officials in 10 urban areas have reached what Homeland Security called a minimum level of connected communications. That level, however, only ensures that local response commanders coordinate with each other within an hour after a disaster or other emergency strikes.
Those cities are: Boston, Chicago, Houston, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington and its surrounding suburbs.
Though they have received the bulk of the federal funding available, connecting responders in large cities is far more difficult than in rural areas or small towns, said Eric Lamar, a 23-year veteran of the Fairfax County, Va., fire department and communications expert with the International Association of Fire Fighters.
He said it makes more sense to ensure that firefighters from different agencies, or police officers from nearby jurisdictions, can talk to each other before putting everyone on the same radio frequency.
"Here, in large metropolitan areas, you could easily have four to five fire departments, four to five law enforcement agencies and a series of other government offices" responding to an emergency, Lamar said. "Sorting that out in a way that would be effective would really be quite a challenge. There's enough problems in making sure that four to five fire departments can talk to each other — forget anybody else."