BALTIMORE--Speaking at today’s Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference, former U.S. Coast Guard Captain Larry Brudnicki enthralled attendees with stories from an event that a few years ago was the subject of a popular motion picture.

Brudnicki and his crew were involved in two rescue operations during a storm which defied description, according to Brudnicki, a storm that was five times the size of Hurricane Andrew, “the worst weather in 100 years,” he said. Afterwards, it was thought that the storm should have a name. At first, Brudnicki said, newspapers referred to it as the “Halloween Storm” because it represented a mariner’s “worst nightmare.” Eventually, given its severity and the conditions under which it formed, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist christened it the “Perfect Storm.”

Brudnicki told of several instances during the rescues when he was faced with crucial decisions; an action taken to save one mariner could put several, perhaps many, of the rescuers at risk. “You can’t go into a situation like this hoping for the best, because hope is not a method,” Brudnicki said. “You have to understand what risks you’re willing to accept, and be satisfied you have a plan to overcome those risks.”

Earlier in the morning Derek Poarch, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, spoke briefly about the effort to reconfigure the 800 MHz airwaves, an effort that is woefully behind schedule, with no licensees rebanded thus far and the FCC-mandated deadline less than 11 months away. Nevertheless, Poarch said the June 2008 deadline remains “an important date,” and that public-safety licensees shouldn’t count on getting an extension.

“Let’s be clear on what needs to happen next June,” Poarch said. “Everyone—public safety, Sprint, vendors, the Transition Administrator and the bureau—will need to work harder and more efficiently to move this process forward. … Working together, we can get this done.”

Indeed, the commission has no plans to extend the deadline if public-safety licensees fail to use the remaining time efficiently, said Poarch, who acknowledged that “everyone involved in the process bears some responsibility,” for the current state of reconfiguration.

“[Public safety] can expect that it will have the time it reasonably needs to complete rebanding—provided the work is ongoing, benchmarks are being met and progress is being made daily,” Poarch said. “But in exchange, I’m counting on public safety to do its part going forward. Public-safety licensees will not get additional time if they do not use the time they still have to wisely plan, adapt and implement their systems to meet their obligations to the rebanding process.”

Poarch’s remarks struck me as wishful thinking. Granted, important steps were taken this year to help speed the reconfiguration process, notably the subscriber equipment deployment initiative announced by the TA in March—which lets licensees retune mobile and portable radios prior to the completion of all negotiations with Sprint Nextel—and the FCC’s recent clarification of its rules concerning reconfiguration costs. But the process is too far along, with far too little progress to date, for anyone to reasonably think that rebanding will be completed on time. It’s also unrealistic to think that the majority of licensees will be rebanded by next June. Rather than holding licensees’ feet to the coals, the FCC and TA would do better to develop a revised timetable that reflects where the rebanding is today—not where it should have been—and realistically projects when it will be completed.

Poarch did hit the nail on the head when he spoke of the need for all parties to work together. Brudnicki echoed the teamwork theme in his remarks. He told of his crew’s rescue of three people whose 30-foot sailboat capsized, as well as the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter that crashed into the sea upon running out of fuel, after several failed attempts to refuel in the air. According to Brudnicki, there was one driving factor behind the successful effort.

“This team acted with the power of a single focus—there were no hidden agendas, there were no competing priorities. Every man on that team had the same goal—get those men out of the water.”

Unfortunately, while all involved in the reconfiguration process have a single purpose—removing interference in the 800 MHz band that puts first responders and the public they serve at risk—too many competing priorities exist that impede progress. And no amount of hoping will make that situation go away.

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