Katrina and Interoperable Communications: How far have we come?

Fire worker holding walkie-talkie with patient and EMT doctor in the background

August 24th, 2015 by Ben Yelin

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In its “Lessons Learned” document from Hurricane Katrina, the George W. Bush administration noted that although Federal, State, and local agencies had communications plans and assets at the ready, the plans and assets were, “neither sufficient nor adequately integrated to respond effectively to the disaster.” Furthermore, the report stated that the inability to communicate effectively among first responders, “clearly impeded coordination and communication at the Federal, State, and local levels.” According to a report issued by the U.S. Army War College, the communications failures were significant enough to cause, “undue death and destruction in” in affected areas.[1] As we approach Katrina’s 10 year anniversary, we must evaluate whether we have made adequate strides in streamlining public safety communications. While there have been some very promising developments, we are still unacceptably short of the seamless interoperability infrastructure we need to avoid a repeat of Katrina.

Soon after Katrina, an advocacy group for first responders, released a report chastising the federal government for its inability to enact the final recommendation of the 9/11 commission, which was to dedicate wireless broadband spectrum specifically for public safety use. Seven years after Katrina, in early 2012, Congress enacted the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, which allocated the so-called “D block” to public safety, and created the First Responder’s Network Authority (commonly known as FirstNet) to facilitate the build out of the nation’s first high speed broadband network specifically dedicated to first responders.  With a dedicated, secure, reliable public safety data network, first responders could use many of the data features we rely on in our everyday lives: GIS mapping, real-time video, and instant access to federal and state emergency databases.  Of course, one of the key issues during Katrina was that public safety communications infrastructure was devastated by the storm. The promise of FirstNet is that these key data services would be available to first responders even during large-scale disasters like Katrina through the use of the priority/preemption feature of LTE and the use of deployable technologies.

The promise of FirstNet has been somewhat tempered by its slow progress. Since its passage in 2012, FirstNet’s development has been slowed by a series of missteps. The first chair of the Board was forced to resign after allegations of faulty hiring practices. Furthermore, the federal hiring process prevented FirstNet from quickly assembling the personnel required to achieve its task. Over the past year, however, FirstNet has achieved significant progress. It has conducted required consultations with most States and territories, it has assembled a strong staff and leadership team, and it released a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) to potential FirstNet vendors. The final RFP is expected to be released by the end of 2015. FirstNet also authorized States to begin data collection to help identify the needs and desires of their first responders. Here in Maryland, CHHS staff has provided expertise to help oversee outreach and data collection throughout the state.

Despite the progress, even under the most optimistic timeline, a reliable public safety broadband network will not be operational until at least 2018. Each major disaster, whether it is Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the civil unrest in Baltimore reminds us of the need for FirstNet. Commercial cell service frequently fails during emergency events due to damaged infrastructure or clogged networks. When commercial service fails, first responders are not able to communicate effectively with one another, and are not able to take advantage of the type of data services we all rely on in our everyday lives.

Getting Congress to dedicate spectrum for public safety use was an enormous accomplishment, but it is only the first step. Those of us working in public safety communications policy must work tirelessly to ensure that when the next Katrina strikes, first responders are able to communicate with one another on a secure, dedicated broadband network built for public safety needs.


CHHS Senior Law and Policy Analysts Christopher Webster and Max Romanik also contributed to this blog.

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