Talking it up: emergency communications in the US

  • US cities and surrounding regions are making progress to improve the communications interoperability among emergency response agencies.
  • The 75 separate urban and metropolitan area reports published in January 2007 suggest lessons can be learned for improving tactical communications among any community of emergency responders.
  • Confronting challenges in real and practice situations helps to strengthen performance and improve procedures.

On 3 January 2007, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a 170-page report entitled Tactical interoperable communications scorecards: summary report and findings. Although media coverage of the scorecards has focused on the results given for particular areas and for the US as a whole, a closer reading of the report suggests several guidelines can be used to strengthen the resiliency of emergency communications in any community.

The document assesses the progress achieved by 75 US metropolitan and urban areas (large cities and their surrounding regions) in strengthening the interoperability of their tactical communications systems during all types of emergencies, from terrorist incidents to natural disasters. The report contains two-page scorecards for each urban area under review. Besides assessing past performance, the scorecards recommend what steps these communities should take to improve their crisis communications capabilities.

In its review of the major lessons learned from the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the 9/11 Commission's final report published in July 2004 concluded: "The inability to communicate was a critical element at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, crash sites, where multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions responded. The occurrence of this problem at three very different sites is strong evidence that compatible and adequate communications among public safety organisations at the local, state and federal levels remains an important problem." The deaths of hundreds of New York firefighters caused by their inability to hear warnings broadcast on police radios about the towers' imminent collapse have made the issue especially salient.

A recurring problem

The well-publicised communications difficulties the first responders encountered on 11 September 2001 followed revelations of similar problems in earlier incidents involving law enforcement, medical workers and other emergency management personnel from multiple jurisdictions within a common community. For example, communication difficulties interfered with the response of US government authorities and the local police had difficulty responding to the devastating bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, in April 1995, the deadliest attack by domestic terrorists in US history.

Despite the robust national response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, problems relating to poor tactical communications interoperability have persisted in subsequent emergencies. Much of the disarray seen during the initial response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 resulted from the toppling of communication towers during the storm, which disrupted cellular telephone lines and other civilian communication infrastructure still employed by many emergency responders.

Major government initiatives

These recurring problems have resulted in a major effort within the US to strengthen communications interoperability among the hundreds of federal, state, local and private emergency agencies that would respond to a major disaster.

However, Congress and the administration have provided substantial resources for other communications initiatives. Since 2003, the DHS has distributed more than USD2 billion to state and local governments through its interoperable communications technical assistance programme (ICTAP). Other federal initiatives have provided another USD1 billion to allow state and local agencies to purchase equipment and pursue other projects aimed at improving their communications interoperability.

The federal government's initial priority was to improve command, control and communications processes within 10 major high-threat urban areas through the 2004 RapidCom Initiative. More recent programmes have sought to extend incident communications interoperability to wider regions surrounding these centres. For example, the DHS Office of Grants and Training administers the ICTAP that funds technical assistance efforts at enhancing interoperable communications among federal, state and local emergency responders and public safety agencies.

In 2004, the DHS released a Statement of requirements for wireless public safety communications and interoperability. This document contained the first authoritative set of federal requirements for standardising communications interoperability. Since its publication, the statement has provided essential guidelines for emergency responders and telecommunications providers, as well as public and private research, development and evaluation programmes.

Survey and study results

In December 2006, the DHS released the results of a National Interoperability Baseline Survey of 22,400 emergency response agencies. Of the 6,819 agencies that responded, approximately two-thirds had developed some communications interoperability with other emergency response agencies. Subsequently, however, the DHS official in charge of the survey acknowledged that only 10 per cent of the responding communities could consistently achieve such interoperability.

The January 2007 scorecards sought to complement the December 2006 survey, which relied on agencies to assess their own progress, by providing more specific information about the state of communications interoperability in most-populated US regions. These urban and metropolitan areas also contain many of the most important economic, political and other components of the country's critical infrastructure.

The January 2007 survey judged the communities' progress in achieving tactical communications interoperability in three broad areas which had been identified by past DHS efforts as the most important criteria for measuring interoperability among emergency response capabilities. These are

    • their strategic plan to co-ordinate emergency services across different political jurisdictions

    • their standard disaster response policies and procedures and

    • their training exercises under simulated crisis conditions.

The scorecards incorporated variables relating to communications equipment and technologies and how the responders planned and trained to use them. Besides requiring radios that can communicate with each other, whether directly or through the use of bridging or 'gateway' technologies, interoperability also entails having clearly understood lines of authority, specifying who can talk to who in an emergency and establishing an agreed terminology (such as deciding whether to use the widespread 10-code or plain English). Comprehensive communications interoperability also requires wide acceptance of established standard operating procedures, reinforced by regular and extensive exercises as well as other training that embeds these procedures into daily practice.

Perhaps because of the need to aggregate several subjective variables, the DHS scores are given in terms of 'Harvey Balls' representations (pictograms of circles with one or several of their quarters filled). Since all the metropolitan regions receiving grants related to the tactical interoperable communications plans had established some communications interoperability, each metropolitan and urban area has at least a quarter of the ball filled (representing early implementation). Those deemed to have achieved greater progress (achieving intermediate, established and advanced implementation) had more quartiles darkened (two, three or all four quarters, respectively).

The survey assessed interoperability in both the major cities and their surrounding communities since past experience has demonstrated that during a major crisis responders from neighbouring areas would typically provide assistance. In addition, many emergency response agencies have regional mutual aid agreements that assume collective management of the consequences of any large-scale emergency. Several of the assessed areas include responders from multiple states. For example, the National Capital Region includes jurisdictions in Washington DC, southern Maryland and northern Virginia, where the Pentagon is located.

The reviewers found that all 75 urban and metropolitan areas had met the minimal requirement for DHS grants, meaning they had developed a tactical interoperable communications plan that could apply during the first hour of a crisis. The scorecards also found a strong and widespread commitment among emergency responders to enhance communications interoperability across their specific disciplines and jurisdictions. Nevertheless, the survey concluded that strategic planning and other formal governance processes remained both inconsistent and largely underdeveloped among the regional actors.

The homeland security experts who made the assessments also concluded that the areas of Columbus, Ohio; Laramie County, Wyoming; Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota; San Diego, California; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and the National Capital Region around Washington, DC, had developed the most resilient emergency tactical communications systems. In contrast, the DHS reviewers found the American Samoa; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; and Mandan, North Dakota had achieved the lowest level of emergency communications resiliency.

Lessons learned

A detailed reading of the 75 separate metropolitan and urban area scorecards suggests certain lessons can be learned for improving tactical communications among any community of emergency responders. Five seem especially important for achieving effective communications interoperability.

First, the adage 'practice makes perfect' might not always hold true, but it certainly helps. The DHS required the 75 metropolitan areas to conduct large-scale exercises between May and September 2006 to validate their adoption of the tactical interoperable communications plan, which exposed numerous problems in local response systems and procedures. Experience with real-world challenges also appears to strengthen performance.

After emergency crisis managers in the San Diego region had communication co-ordination problems when responding to devastating wildfires in 2003, the region's authorities undertook a sustained effort to bolster their capabilities. As a result, they achieved some of the highest scores in the January 2007 evaluation.

Second, longstanding cultural differences continue to impede tactical communications interoperability among different responder communities. Police officers, firefighters and medical personnel have developed unique long-standing communication procedures (such as shorthand codes) that they remain reluctant to abandon. In addition to this, in some localities the emergency response communities continue to dispute whose communication protocols should apply under various circumstances.

Fortunately, the recent experience of the US military shows that further multi-disciplinary training and exercises, combined with the interoperability requirements of federal grants, should reduce the saliency of these 'battles of the badges' over time.

Third, existing investments in communications equipment, which can have a technical lifecycle of 10 to 20 years, represent another legacy barrier to communications interoperability. The extensive and expensive radio communications systems developed independently by the city of Chicago and Cook County have complicated efforts aimed at establishing an interoperable communications system in the Chicago urban area. Local officials with limited budgets find it difficult to abandon their existing communications systems, which may function adequately under normal conditions, until new alternate technologies, with enhanced capabilities, have proven to be both affordable and reliable. Besides the costs involved in rapidly transitioning to a new communications network, scrapping existing technologies before a replacement system is in place would create major vulnerabilities.

Due to the complexities involved in moving from one communications technology to another, government officials need to work closely with telecommunications experts and industry representatives to determine the optimal and often unique conversion path for each community. A 'system of systems' approach that allows emergency responder communities to retain existing communications technologies while progressively incorporating new ones may provide the best balance between excessively slow and overly rapid transitions.

Fourth, simplicity of use remains a golden rule for emergency communications technologies. In a crisis, local first responders encountering difficulties with communications equipment frequently ignored the common protocols specified in the national incident management system/incident command system and used their cellular telephones, personal digital assistants, and other private communication devices. The Hurricane Katrina disaster, in which the storm toppled communication towers throughout the devastated regions, underscored the risks of routinely relying on less resilient commercial communications infrastructures for emergency communications.

Fifth, interoperability appears much easier to achieve across emergency disciplines than across political boundaries. According to the report, multi-agency communications within a single emergency management area have become widespread since September 2001, but interoperable communications capabilities extending across geographic communities remain rare. Furthermore, while more than 60 per cent of the responder communities surveyed in the report had achieved considerable ability to communicate with each other in a crisis, only 21 per cent had demonstrated the capacity to converse with state and federal officials during an emergency.

These discrepancies result from the principle underlying consequence management in the US that local emergency agencies should have the lead role in responding to any disaster. Before September 2001, the US's strong commitment to federalism encouraged local communities to purchase their own communications equipment and develop emergency management systems without paying much attention to whether they were interoperable with those of neighbouring communities. Private corporations are also responsible for developing and maintaining most of the underlying telecommunications infrastructure in the US.

Federal officials recognise that these environmental conditions circumscribe their ability to shape the evolution of state and local emergency communication networks. For the foreseeable future, they will have to continue to rely on financial incentives, public exhortations and other indirect means to harmonise communications technologies and procedures across federal, state and local political jurisdictions.

Finally, the scorecards show the amount of money spent on communications equipment clearly matters. For example, one reason the city of Boston and its surrounding communities achieved such high scores was that the region had received considerable federal funds and equipment to improve emergency communications during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

On 26 July 2006, the US Conference of Mayors published a survey of 183 local governments on homeland security and emergency preparedness. Eighty per cent of the respondents said they had not yet received sufficient federal resources to achieve full communications interoperability.

The federal government may need to provide extra assistance to lagging communities despite the political difficulties such funding disparities might entail. Layered homeland security defences often are only as resilient as their weakest link. Besides raising the lowest common denominator, federal authorities now confront an additional funding requirement: the need to ensure interoperability as communities transition to advanced technologies that allow for video and data exchanges as well as traditional voice communication. Although expensive, such capabilities could prove useful for conducting stand-off assessments of major disasters involving weapons of mass destruction and radiological dispersion devices (dirty bombs).

Next steps

During the previous session of Congress, the Democrats, then in a minority, attempted to address the communications interoperability issue through the proposed Homeland Emergency Response Operations Act. This bill, introduced in April 2005 but never enacted, would have amended the Communications Act of 1934 to require TV broadcasters return the analog TV broadcast (700 MHz) spectrum to the Federal Communications Commission by 31 December 2006. Representative Edward J Markey also unsuccessfully offered a substitute to the digital television spectrum transfer provision in the Fiscal Year 2006 budget reconciliation bill that would have set a date for allocating additional frequencies to emergency responders and dedicated USD5 billion of the proceeds from future auctions of public broadcasting spectrums to funding initiatives to enhance emergency responder interoperability.

The leaders of the new Democratic-controlled Congress have reaffirmed their commitment to enhancing communications interoperability among US emergency responders. When announcing the report, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said the department was "committed to making this a priority in every major urban area, and we will continue to push for closing these gaps by the end of 2008". He said the DHS expected the local authorities to use the scorecards to decide where to target future federal communications interoperability grants.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

Explore our related content