Can We Talk?

Hurricane Katrina and other disasters have reemphasized the importance of the interoperability of emergency communication systems for local and state first responders. Here’s how they’re staying on track.

State and local IT officials are taking the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina to make big changes in their emergency preparedness efforts. The idea is to enable better communication among first responders and be more effective at deploying their IT resources.

Aided by an anticipated huge influx in federal funding, these officials are also taking advantage of recent innovations in Internet technologies to help their cause. There are several IT-based initiatives under way to unify radio communications, automate and decrease warning delays and make use of advanced Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems to consolidate data and voice communications.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single technology that can solve the interoperability problem. And technology by itself can’t achieve interoperability.

The problem is well-known and a tough one. “Interoperability is always used as a cure-all for everyone’s communications problems,” says Terry Evans, the former IT manager for the City of Long Beach, Calif. “But it isn’t an easy problem to solve.”

Each particular group of responders has its own communications network, radio frequencies, protocols and incompatible gear. Getting the local fire and police, state and federal government officials, and even private specialists, such as chemical engineers and others, to talk on a common frequency is more than just giving out a set of radios. It requires coordination, as well as command and control planning.

This is especially true when a large-scale disaster strikes and wipes out a huge portion of a communications infrastructure. “Katrina proved that once you lose your power and your cell and radio towers, you need bigger and better backups, especially for voice communications,” says PJ Doyle, president of CJIS Group, a research and consulting firm in Crawfordville, Fla., that specializes in public safety and emergency communications. “For these kinds of disasters, we need to be able to talk to each other when we don’t have our traditional systems in place and can’t get to the phones and Internet by the usual methods.”

Ideally, state and local government IT managers should provide a four-point technology plan for coping with disasters: Unify the radio spectrum, implement an Internet backup, use better sensor technologies for early warning and implement some type of reverse notification phone database.


The first upgrade for state and local IT departments concerns the radio systems used by the responders. Most systems operate on 800 megahertz (MHz) frequencies, and each department generally uses a different frequency for directing its operations at the scene of an emergency.

Raytheon’s JPS Communications’ product, the ACU-1000 Intelligent Interconnect System, provides interoperability between multiple radio systems operating on different frequencies. Several departments have already deployed this system, including some in southwest Florida, where hurricanes are frequent.

“Our biggest challenge is having a catastrophic radio plan, and the ACU-1000 is going to be the key for having a good disaster plan,” says Richard Zyvoloski, Jr., the emergency management coordinator for Florida’s Collier County government. “With Hurricane Charlie, the 800MHz system survived the hurricane, but we needed repeaters [a device usually located on towers or the tops of tall buildings that allows radio communication to travel great distances] and ways to communicate with the other responders.”


Another approach is from Cisco Systems, which has developed an IP Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) that extends its VoIP protocols and delivers communication interoperability and emergency management. The concept is to deliver the right information to the right person in the right format at the right time during an emergency.

The Cisco approach integrates push-to-talk and land-mobile radios with traditional switched phone voice service over an IP network so that everyone can communicate with each other and use the Internet infrastructure as a backup in case of catastrophic failure.

The system is in field trials in several communities around the country and has received high marks. “You have to come up with a newer technology” than 800MHz radios for police, fire and Emergency Medical Services to talk to each other, said Gordon Bruce, CIO for the city of Honolulu in a video presentation. The city and county have implemented Cisco’s IPICS.

“You have IP, and we can do so much with IP,” Bruce noted. “I can put a camera on it, I can put a PC on it, I can put a cell phone on it. Why not an 800MHz radio and tie all that together?”

Cisco claims that its system provides even more durability and redundancy than ordinary radio-based and switched phone systems. “The vast majority of non-IP systems are still [inoperable] in the Katrina zone,” says Dean Zanone, the IPICS customer solutions manager for Cisco and a former police officer. “What we can do is take the pieces of the existing infrastructure and extend their reach.”

Some feel that even though Cisco’s efforts are noteworthy, there is still a need for traditional communication systems. “We need to have a combination of radio and data capabilities, so the two will complement each other,” explains Tom Merkle, standards manager at Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN), a partnership of the state of Maryland, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia to develop an interoperable first-responder data communication and information sharing network. “In case one system is lost during an emergency, the other can step in and make up the difference.”


Sensors detect fires, earthquakes and loss of electrical power. Sensors also can be triggered by manufacturing accidents or by freeway closures because of collisions or other circumstances. The sensors can send this information back to a central management and monitoring facility or a dispatch center for first responders to make an evaluation and take action.


The final technological piece is a “reverse 911” phone notification system. The system stores phone numbers of all residential and commercial customers by geographic location, so everyone within a certain area can be called in case of an emergency.

An emergency response center can target a particular area and initiate hundreds of calls to warn people in that area of an impending event. This helps increase rapid response in times of emergency.

Users can also create a list of individuals with common characteristics, such as a Neighborhood Crime Watch group or emergency responder teams, and contact them with important information as it becomes available and is needed.

“That way, you can match a geographical area with a set of phone numbers to call,” says Evans of Long Beach, Calif. “This is a big deal in coastal areas and is a way to get information about a tsunami warning out quickly to the public.”


State and local IT departments will soon have an added incentive to try their hand at these advanced technologies, which are designed to provide communication interoperability, thanks to several bills pending in Congress. (See “Pending Federal Legislation ”.) These funds will come out of the sale of the analog TV spectrum as the United States converts to a digital TV format by 2009.

Due to this legislation, several funding sources will become available, including:

• $1 billion for state and local interoperability grants
• $156 million to fund the Warning, Alert and Respond Network (WARN) Act, national alert and tsunami warning system
• $43.5 million in funding to improve enhanced-911 communications.

“By providing our emergency response entities and broadcasters with a date certain for the digital transition,” Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a sponsor of the legislation, said in a press statement, “our first responders can move forward in ensuring that critical communication infrastructure is in place in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.”

Some people are skeptical about how effective the federal government can be in this situation. “If the feds are going to put billions into this marketplace, we need them to lead the way and set some standards,” says Doyle of the CJIS Group.

There are other nationwide efforts that state and local government IT workers should get involved in. For example, the Emergency Management Technical Committee of the Billerica, Mass.-based Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) is working in this area with key industry and government stakeholders to promote communication interoperability.

One subcommittee, which is chaired by CapWIN’s Merkle, is looking at the messaging infrastructure, particularly at ways in which various emergency sensors can quickly communicate with first responders.

“We are going to focus more on sensor data and how to embed that into infrastructure areas,” Merkle explains. “The problem is that most current sensors are somewhat limited in how they report their information and [are] limited to having a person monitor them in a brick-and-mortar building.

“We want to tie them together for the first responder community, so the responders and the public don’t become victims,” Merkle adds. “This way, we can reduce delays in responding. So, for example, when a chemical spill sensor gets activated, we will be able to notify the operations centers or the particular geographic areas quickly and automatically.”

Despite these efforts, plenty of work remains to be done. Still, many are hopeful that they’re on the right track toward interoperable communication during a disaster.


Here’s an emergency preparedness plan for government IT workers:

• Articulate clear business solutions for prevention and response.
• Consider mixing data with voice communications to provide redundant paths.
• Partner with the right experts and geographic areas.
• Don’t rely solely on federal grants, and be creative in your funding sources.
• Know up front what information you need to share and with whom.



Two significant bills that will help with disaster planning communication have been reported out of committee and are under consideration in Congress. Called the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act and the Spectrum Availability for Emergency Response and Law-Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services (SAVE LIVES) Act, they are complementary efforts aimed at disaster planning and preparedness. The acts use money from auctions of the analog TV spectrum to fund various state and local programs to help in these areas.

“With this [WARN] bill, a mother picking up her kids from school would be able to have the latest alert for her community sent straight to her cell phone,” says Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Disaster Prediction and Prevention.

The WARN Act will help modernize technology to ensure America’s communities receive the alerts and warnings necessary to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, man-made accidents and terrorist attacks. It will create a National Alert System, which will transmit alerts to individuals about any public safety threat.

The second bill under consideration is the SAVE LIVES Act. When digital television is finally implemented across the country by 2009, the 24 megahertz of bandwidth used by analog TV signals will be repurposed for emergency use. The act establishes funding for enhanced interoperable communications for various state, local and tribal governments, as well as for training first responders in its use.

Oct 31 2006