Public Safety and Homeland Security

One of the highest duties of any nation's government is assuring the public's safety and security. One vital element in providing that safety and security is a strong and resilient communications system. The tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, however, starkly demonstrated that our nation relies on an uncoordinated, non-interoperable, and outdated emergency communications system that is highly vulnerable to catastrophic disruption and failure. In the 21st century, America's public safety and homeland security require 21st-century communications and information technology that are robust, ubiquitous, interoperable, resilient, and redundant.113

America Needs Modern Telecommunications and Information Technology to Improve Public Safety and Protect Homeland Security

Today's communications and information technology (IT) services are too often based on outdated technologies that are too slow to respond to - and recover from - emergencies, disasters, and systemic failures. Public safety and recovery efforts are impeded. Citizens who suddenly lose their access to information and first responders are endangered. For example, on 9/11, 95 percent of cell phone calls made at 11 a.m. failed to get through; the central office for the phone system cut off 300,000 landline phones; television stations were knocked off the air; and many first responders' radios failed. Yet only 2 percent of Internet addresses remained off-line for an extended period, illustrating the Internet's overall resilience to attacks as a result of its flexibility and adaptability. During Katrina, 38 critical Public Safety Answering Points failed, preventing 911 calls from being answered. Information sharing was impeded by the absence of data sharing standards and systems.

Those failures could have been avoided had IP-based voice and data communication services and infrastructure been used, public safety leaders say, citing their demonstrated information sharing value, and their resiliency and redundancy when properly deployed.114 As FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told the panel investigating the performance of the communications infrastructure during Katrina, "I would also like to see a greater use of IP technologies that are capable of changing and rerouting telecommunications traffic. In the event of a systems failure within the traditional network, such IP technologies would enable service to be restored more quickly and would provide the flexibility to initiate service at new locations chosen by consumers."115

As Mark Lloyd has written, the goal of the federal government's broadband policy "should be first and foremost to ensure our ability to respond to threats to our homeland security and to natural disasters. ... Without ubiquitous broadband our first responders could be crippled by the lack of effective communications in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster."116

A 21st-century telecommunications infrastructure that is scaled to provide for our national defense would be universal, robust, interoperable, open, resilient, and redundant. Unfortunately, federal communications policy has failed to foster that universal and robust infrastructure because it views broadband and advanced telecommunications services as a consumer service best left to market-driven private business, rather than as critical to national defense, and therefore, a compelling public need.117

Numerous real world examples demonstrate that the universal deployment of robust broadband will improve our nation's homeland security and public safety. The collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis illustrates how broadband can weather a disaster and continue to provide reliable communications for first responders and the public. Craig Settles reported about the performance of that city's municipal Wi-Fi network, which at the time of the tragedy was still under construction:

When the concrete and steel span abruptly gave way in rush-hour traffic on Wednesday, August 1 [2007], the city's municipal network was only one quarter completed and that section had only been operational for two months. There were no prior drills by either the city staff, the network vendor (USI Wireless) or the general population for a crisis response involving the technology, though the city had planned to use the network for emergency response....

As news of the bridge collapse spread, two separate response efforts were set in motion and later united: one by the city's CIO Lynn Willenbring, and the other by USI Wireless' CEO Joe Caldwell.

Willenbring called her IT team together immediately after hearing about the collapse and they provided basic support and services from their offices for the city's emergency operations command center. The city's GIS (Geographic Information System) staff prepared maps to distribute via the network to the public to use and to send to the disaster site for city staff dealing with traffic and recovery efforts.

Caldwell called the City to find out how his company could help, but couldn't get through because the cellular network was jammed. He decided on the spot to open the entire network to be free for 24 hours for any citizen who could use it. Network traffic surged from 1000 subscribers to 6000 concurrent users. People with Wi-Fienabled telephones could make voice calls, and anyone with Wi-Fi devices could send instant messages, video, photos, e-mail or other data. The company also sent crews to install BelAir Networks equipment to cover then undeployed areas around the bridge area and also wireless cameras to help with recovery operations.118

Within 12 hours, using readily available communications equipment, extra access points, and video cameras, emergency workers had audio and visual access to the entire bridge collapse area. Minneapolis's entire municipal Wi-Fi network proved invaluable in the hours, days, and weeks to follow, connecting government officials, emergency workers, families with loved ones lost or injured in the collapse, and ordinary citizens.119

In Hermiston, Oregon, a 700-square-mile wireless broadband cloud around the Umatilla Chemical Depot, a highly dangerous site that is a tempting target for terrorists, allows public safety officials equipped with Wi- Fi-enabled laptop computers to monitor potential chemical leaks and allow first responders to direct evacuees safely from the field during emergencies.120

Another benefit of the Hermiston wireless broadband cloud is if nerve gas does escape, officers in police cars equipped with laptops and the appropriate software can download data and receive images that display the gas cloud's direction and speed. First responders are able to communicate via Wi-Fi - there's no problem with incompatible radios and frequencies, as happened to the New York City first responders on 9/11. If there's a report of a burglary or a fire, first responders rushing to the scene can download floor plans of the building, live images from video monitors, and information about the alarm system.121

Broadband and broadband-enabled applications can tie together local community firefighters, police officers, ambulance crews, and other emergency workers in a single wireless communications network. In the future, police officers engaged in high-speed chases could get real-time footage from helicopters. Bomb squads would be able to inspect dangerous sites remotely.122

The smallest and most rural public safety agencies stand to benefit the most from broadband access to the Internet because it can give them access to the best information technology applications at a cost far more affordable than those available today. For example, with funding provided by the U.S. Justice Department through the Tribal Rural Law Enforcement Internet Project, a program that has existed in various forms since 1995, the Comanche Nation Police use broadband Internet access to seek help from other law enforcement agencies in preparing search warrants or investigating officers' deaths. The Project's listserv recently helped a Texas law enforcement agency prepare a subpoena and an Alaska agency research model curfew policies. The experiences of these rural public safety bureaus are textbook examples of ways broadband can improve everyday law enforcement performance and efficiency. But, astonishingly, rather than build on this Project's track record of success, the Justice Department recently announced it would not renew the Project's funding. Said one rural police chief whose department was about to lose its broadband Internet access, "I don't know how you replace it."123

Universal, affordable, and robust broadband could bring many benefits in the event of a public safety or homeland security emergency. In the event of a major 9/11-type attack on Washington, or a flu pandemic or other emergency, offices could be inaccessible but employees would still be able to communicate via broadband-based applications. Federal workers using broadband-enabled phones could immediately work from home or other broadbandenabled locations, improving continuity of government. But without broadband at home, workers would remain isolated, unable to connect to each other or the broader network.124

Strong Federal Leadership Is Necessary to Implement a National Broadband Strategy That Will Enhance Public Safety and Protect Home land Security

Professor Jon M. Peha of Carnegie Mellon University, an expert on public safety communications systems, recently testified before Congress about the compelling public safety and homeland security rationale for a national broadband infrastructure:

When public safety communication systems fail, people can die. We had seen this occur after the 9/11 attacks, after Hurricane Katrina, and in countless large and small emergencies throughout the country. Many of these tragic failures are avoidable.

In addition to suffering from much-discussed interoperability problems, the communication systems used by public safety are less dependable than they should be, less secure than they should be, and less spectrally efficient than they should be. Ironically, they are also more expensive than they should be, which means taxpayers pay extra for systems that are unnecessarily prone to failure.125

Instead, Peha told Congress: "First responders should have a single nationwide broadband communications system with technology that is based on open standards. This requires federal leadership."126

The kind of leadership needed today was on display in 1956 when the federal government, in the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, signed enthusiastically into law by President Eisenhower, committed to building a nationwide network of world-class, high-speed interstate superhighways to better provide for public safety and homeland security.127 Today, in the Digital Age, for those same reasons, the federal government must exert that same kind of leadership to ensure the standards, shared services, and connections to a new world-class infrastructure of 21st-century telecommunications networks.

"All Americans need access to advanced telecommunications services in the 21st century," Lloyd writes, "just as they needed access to an advanced highway system in the 20th century." This is particularly true for all emergency organizations meeting critical public needs. Just as we connected schools to broadband at the end of the last century, we need to hook up the more than 100,000 emergency agencies in the nation. "Katrina and 9/11 remind us that access to advanced telecommunications service is a public need. We need national leadership to remind us of this, and insist on policies that address public needs."128

The Right Applications for the Right Networks

Achieving integrated and interoperable emergency response systems requires that 1) emergency organizations have access to broadband, 2) the networks serving this balkanized field interconnect, and 3) most importantly, the right data and applications can be transmitted over Internet networks.129 However, there's no one government agency charged with taking a comprehensive view of public safety and emergency response. And, too often, the agencies charged with different aspects of the emergency response focus too much on building networks, not the needed standardization of data and applications that must run over them.

The commercial and military sectors are leading the way in creating and employing a "virtual safety enterprise": the network-centric operations, cloud computing, managed services, service-oriented architectures, and the like, which are needed to tie together tens of thousands of disparate agencies, most of which have their unique communications and information technology.130 If information companies could take on the safety market, treat it like a virtual enterprise, and develop standards-based managed application services for it, they would be able to cause major leaps forward in service to the public in emergencies large and small (and major overall cost savings). So far they have not been interested in advancing commercial, managed service solutions to this fractured market.


The new Administration should utilize broadband technologies to enhance public safety and protect homeland security.

  1. Undertake a national effort to build a national 21stcentury telecommunications system that will provide for public safety and homeland security similar to the effort undertaken 50 years ago to build our National Interstate and Defense Highway system. This effort should be guided by these overarching principles:
    • First responders should have a single, nationwide, robust broadband communications system with technology based on open standards and redundant and resilient connections.
    • All U.S. citizens should have access to emergency services and agencies using any device or mode commonly used in public communications.
    • The network should provide emergency responders and citizens access to the information they need, when, where, and how they need it. Specifically, this effort should include:
    • Ensuring that local, state, federal, and tribal statutes, regulations, and overall policies promote, rather than delay, the creation of this system;
    • Directing the Department of Homeland Security to mandate interoperable, broadband-based systems in all communications-related grants;131 and
    • Evaluating and, if effective, continuing the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program132 at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
  2. Convene a new blue-ribbon panel on emergency communications and information technology, such as that assembled by the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2003, to study the emergency telecommunications and IT systems and networks now operating across the nation. The panel should recommend to the Administration and Congress ways that those networks could be upgraded and supplemented to provide for the nation's public safety and the national defense in the 21st century.133
  3. Adopt the ComCARE E-Safety Program to enhance homeland security by helping bring 21st-century capabilities to emergency response, deploying integrated, interoperable, and interconnected wireline and wireless systems and applications.134
  4. Restore funding for the Tribal Rural Law Enforcement Internet Project.
  5. Direct FEMA to create a Disaster Relief Mobile Services Unit to provide advanced telecommunications services to areas where the existing infrastructure has been devastated by disaster.
  6. Appoint a national cyber security advisor to coordinate policy to secure information and information networks.
  7. Adopt the recommendations of the Joint Advisory Committee on Communications Capabilities of Emergency Medical and Public Health Care Facilities to overhaul and update the communications systems of EMS, 9-1-1, and public health facilities, based on these principles:
    • Encourage interoperable broadband networks.
    • Improve interoperability through better interagency coordination.
    • Enable consistent efforts through use of common standards and federal grant guidance coordination.
    • Advance capabilities through better network integration.
    • Ensure that first responders, health care personnel, and patients have ubiquitous access to broadband services and applications by fostering a regulatory environment in which private-sector companies build robust broadband networks and by providing targeted funding.135