Urgent Matters

East Coast quake a stark reminder of communications challenges

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Early in 2010, public-safety officials conducted a press conference announcing unified support for Congress to pass legislation to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to first responders, because additional broadband spectrum would be needed in emergencies. Almost simultaneously, a disastrous 7.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged Haiti, where recovery efforts continue.
This week — just days before lawmakers are scheduled to return to Capitol Hill and potentially consider legislation and funding for a 700 MHz broadband network for public safety — a 5.9-magnitude earthquake shook the East Coast, including Washington, D.C.

Are these just random coincidences? Probably, although more than few people have asked me, "Do you think someone upstairs is trying to tell us something?"

Regardless, the fact is that such events happen, with alarming regularity. Thankfully, the damage caused by this week's East Coast earthquake was relatively minor, especially when compared to geological events in Haiti, Chile and Japan during the past 20 months.

Of course, no one knew this at the time, and everyone understandably wanted to know more. Commercial wireless networks lost no towers and remained operational, but they quickly were overloaded in the aftermath of the quake by the sheer volume of calls from people seeking to determine the safety of friends and family in the area. Many calls simply could not be completed.

Some lawmakers and FCC officials have advocated auctioning the D Block and establishing a system that would provide public-safety agencies access to commercial networks during times of emergency. But this week's earthquake highlights the reason why such a strategy is flawed, said Sean Kirkendall, a spokesman for the Public Safety Alliance (PSA).

"This idea that [public safety is] going to roam onto commercial networks when we need them in critical incidents is ludicrous," Kirkendall said.

It's a scenario that public-safety officials know well and have been telling federal officials about for years — when big incidents happen, commercial wireless networks often are unavailable. Meanwhile, public-safety communications were maintained on dedicated land-mobile-radio networks, such as the one in Charlottesville, Va. — the epicenter of the earthquake.

Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner said LMRs were distributed to key decision-makers throughout the city's government, so key lines of communications could be maintained as commercial wireless networks remained unreliable.

Werner has been outspoken in his support for D Block reallocation and the need for a public-safety broadband network, and this week's event only reaffirmed his position.

"I don't know what attention you need to get to get Congress on board to make this nationwide public-safety network happen, but the time is now," Werner said. "It doesn't get any more real or symbolic than the shock wave that hit [Tuesday]. ... Aside from something being truly cataclysmic, I don't know what else would do it."

Hopefully, lawmakers don't require a cataclysmic event to take action. While it legitimately could take time to iron out some details regarding funding, procurement and governance matters, this week's earthquake should serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that the need for a dedicated public-safety broadband network is real and that the network's deployment should not be delayed unnecessarily.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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