National wireless communications system for first responders years away

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Despite the urgent need for first responder emergency communications in communities across the country, it could be years before a nationwide wireless broadband communication system is deployed, according to an iHealthBeat article citing a report in the New York Times.

Continuity of communications, capacity, and interoperability are primary areas of national vulnerability in U.S. first responder emergency communications. The destructive nature of catastrophic disasters can disrupt communications and the ability to maintain communications during and following a disaster. Emergency communications breakdowns, for example, undermined response efforts during terrorist attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In subsequent years, emergency response officials have worked to advance their communications technology. Most recently, during Hurricane Sandy, New York police officers were able talk by radio with fire department officials and other authorities across the region, something that wasn't possible when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Nevertheless, the technology is a far cry from the robust, nationwide emergency communications system planned by the federal government post-9/11 that would allow any public safety officials in the U.S. to use a standard communication device that operates on the same frequency as other emergency responders. For example, emergency responders from other regions who traveled to New York to help with the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts were not able to use their own radios to communicate with New York responders.

The inability to communicate across different organizations and jurisdictions as needed during disasters remains a serious vulnerability for first responders due to technological factors. Case in point: New York's emergency communications system is based on fourth-generation cell phone technology, which does not allow emergency responders in different locations to contact each other directly through a walkie-talkie-style communications channel.

As a result, emergency responders must dial a phone number and face the real possibility that their cell calls will be dropped. In addition, because emergency responders rely on commercial wireless networks for their communications, they are vulnerable to power outages that can disrupt cell service. Millions of Americans on the East Coast who recently were caught in the path of Hurricane Sandy lost power and consequently cell service when they needed it most.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, state and local jurisdictions, as well as the private sector, have invested billions of dollars to build and enhance existing communications systems. On the federal side, while Congress has set aside a special section of airwaves to accommodate a new nationwide emergency communication system, it dedicated only $2 billion for initial work on the network. Experts estimate it will require up to $10 billion in additional funding, half of which could come from the Federal Communications Commission auctioning of wireless airwaves.

However, the FCC has faced resistance from television broadcasters and government agencies currently holding the licenses to those airwaves.

In related news, the four major U.S. wireless carriers--AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-mobile, and Verizon--agreed with the FCC to establish an initiative allowing people to send texts to 911 emergency call centers. The service is expected to start deploying in 2013, with nationwide availability by May 2014, according to an FCC announcement.

To learn more:
- read iHealthBeat article
- here's the New York Times article
- read FCC 911 text announcement

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