Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Emergency Communications: FCC To the Rescue

So much of engineering ethics deals with bad news that I'm glad to report some potentially good news for a change. At the end of last month, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission did something that may vastly improve the way first responders across the nation can communicate in large-scale emergencies. But to appreciate this good news, you need to hear some old bad news about the sorry state of emergency communications today.

During the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001, dozens of firefighters died, and later studies showed that a contributing factor was the gridlock in radio communications that happened that day. Policemen, firemen, ambulance drivers, and other emergency organizations need fast, reliable communications to save lives of both disaster victims and their own. But in the World Trade Center collapse and during Hurricane Katrina, people died needlessly because emergency radio communications systems broke down.

First responders have used two-way radios in this country since at least the 1930s, but unfortunately, the basic design plan of the technology has improved only marginally since then. Radios are smaller, lighter, and more durable, and computer technology has made some improvements, but many if not most emergency radio systems operated by city, state, and federal jurisdictions are basically analog point-to-point links. If phone companies had stayed with this model, we would still have about ten mobile telephones per metropolitan area instead of the millions of cell phones we have today.

Why haven't emergency communications systems gotten on the cellphone bandwagon? The reasons are complex, but here are two. First, most first responders are local: town fire departments, regional sheriff's offices, etc. Cellphone-like wireless networks require vast investments in infrastructure (towers, switches, computers, etc.) and are inherently large-scale operations, covering vast geographic areas. Second, the regulatory environment reflected traditional technology—the Federal Communications Commission (our traffic cops of the airwaves) up to now has not updated the frequency spectrum allocations to allow broadband wireless technology in this sector, even if there was anyone around who wanted to do it. As a result, we have a system that works okay most of the time, but tends to collapse in a crisis such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina–just when you need it the most.

Well, I am happy to report that at least the FCC is getting its act together in this area. On July 31, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps issued a statement accompanying some rule changes that promise to improve the situation in emergency communications in a big way.

You may be old enough to remember TVs with tuner dials, like cheap radios have even today. One dial covered the VHF channels 2 to 13, and the other dial was labeled UHF and went from 14 to 83. Well, now that digital TV is coming along like a freight train, the new smaller frequency allocations it requires have freed up what amount to UHF channels 52 to 69, some 108 MHz of spectrum space. The FCC is going to auction this valuable natural resource off in various ways, but it has reserved a chunk of it for (drum roll, please) a national interoperable public-safety system.

Now what does that mean? If all goes according to plan (and the plan, which involves both public and private funding, is by no means certain to work), we will go from creaky old analog radio systems that basically don't let firemen from Town A talk to policemen in Town B right next to them, to a broadband wireless cellphone-like system that will let anybody talk with anybody else they need to, and will have enough reserve capacity to handle the largest emergencies likely to happen. In his prepared statement, Commissioner Copps regretted that his fondest dream of a fully federal-funded system wasn't going to happen, but apparently he has high hopes that a commercial outfit will step up to the plate and bid for the spectrum that can be used to achieve these ambitious goals.

I have not studied the details of the FCC plan, but I do know the present hodge-podge of emergency communications systems has big problems. I congratulate the FCC on at least trying to do something about it, and hope that Commissioner Copps' dream becomes reality. So if you have any old analog TVs that you're going to have to scrap come February of 2009 (when analog TV is scheduled to fade into the sunset), comfort yourself with the thought that at least some of the spectrum thus freed is going to be used for a good cause. In my experience, those high-band UHF channels never came in very well anyway.

Sources: Commissioner Copps' July 31, 2007 statement can be obtained from the FCC website (http://www.fcc.gov). For more about the problems with present emergency communications systems, see my article "We've Got to Talk: Emergency Communications and Engineering Ethics," scheduled for publication in the Fall 2007 issue of IEEE Technology & Society Magazine.

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