WTH? I can’t believe what I just read. The Washington DC Fire Department, located in the heart of federal grant land, cant’ even communicate with other agencies during emergencies.
Last month’s deadly Metro subway fire exposed big time problems with the radio communication systems between Metro and the fire department. The finger pointing has reached a fever pitch, with blame being shoveled at dispatchers, Metro, government officials and fire department administrators. Enough is enough.
After September 11, “interoperability” became the buzzword. Poor radio systems were blamed for the lack of communication between the NYPD and FDNY, and everyone thought installation of sophisticated mixed frequency trunked radio systems would solve everything. So, in their infinite wisdom the feds started throwing money at the problem..
Fire and law enforcement agencies scrambled to get some of this money, in the hopes of replacing their antiquated radios. Snake oil radio sales representatives trolled the country, promising their systems would solve all of the problems. Ehhhhgh….wrong.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I too tried to get some of this money for my department. Our radio system is decades old, and is being held together with baling wire and duct tape. So, I submitted a few grant applications and lobbied (unsuccessfully) for improved interoperability. But, I had no illusions these upgrades would improve interoperability between law enforcement and fire agencies. Why? Because, interoperability starts with inter-agency shared vision, cooperation and seamless teamwork; something that NYPD and FDNY didn’t have in 2001 and still don’t. And, apparently DCFD, Metro and neighboring fire departments don’t have it either. Nor, do many fire and law enforcement agencies across the country.
Another huge stumbling block in improving radio systems is the technology. Over the past decade, the technology snake oil sales folks have been touting the benefits and coverage of 800 MHz radio system. Why? Because it is the only relatively unused radio frequency spectrum still available for public safety agencies. The problem with these high frequencies is they don’t carry very far, and penetrate walls, floors, cars, or even tree foliage. So, the signal needs to be constantly boosted via extremely expensive repeater systems. . The Phoenix Fire Department did so over a decade ago, concluding their trunked system had significant engineering implementation flaws. Even as recently as two years ago, firefighters continued to complain about their safety in using their “state of the art” system.
More recent efforts to move public safety agencies to the recently freed up 700 MHz frequency block is equally as expensive and has many of the same challenges.
So, what can agencies do?
First, recognize that any attempts to improve technical communications interoperability will fail if agencies don’t come together operationally and administratively and implement common command and control procedures. Tie federal funding for radio system improvements to showing proof of effective institutional interoperability and governance.
Second, take another long hard look at the operational fallibility of ultra-high band repeater systems and digital radio technology for public safety. Call me “old school”, but relying on digital radio systems, encryption and repeater systems introduces too many variables, reducing the reliability of tactical communications in high risk situations. I bet there are lots of other folks wishing they had kept their old 150 MHz analog radio systems.
Until agencies understand that they need to continually play well together in the same sandbox, you might as well give them a federal grant for tin cans and string.