In the aftermath of watershed events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, news stories and congressional testimony have focused on the failures of public-safety communications systems. The discussions have included such topics as operability, interoperability, system resilience, redundancy and hardening of networks.

At a wireless industry conference last September, Morgan O'Brien, the co-founder and former vice chairman of Nextel Communications, characterized public-safety communications in the U.S. as “a total disgrace.” In several subsequent articles, O'Brien stated he was “obsessed” with finding solutions to the above challenges.

In a recent telephone interview, O'Brien told me he was disappointed that he had not done more to find such solutions, adding that if he and others had worked harder at it, perhaps public-safety communications would have performed better during some of the recent catastrophes.

He also didn't back off his “total disgrace” comment. According to O'Brien, public safety has the most demanding set of requirements, but the sector is small compared with the overall wireless marketplace and does not provide the economy of scale needed to provide affordable systems that deliver what first responders “need and deserve.” O'Brien made it clear he wasn't denigrating the progress made by public-safety communications but rather was focused on finding more effective solutions than currently exist.

O'Brien — who is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at IWCE 2006 (www.iwceexpo.com) in Las Vegas in May — further emphasized that public-safety communications is in a “state of conundrum,” with a conflict between needs/requirements and the present economy of scale. Based on this premise, public safety never will be able to afford the state-of-the-art technology readily available in the general commercial wireless market.

He added that the answer to these serious challenges isn't for the federal government to “write a colossal check.” That would do nothing to change the status quo, nor would it inspire innovation, he said.

O'Brien — who recently was named by location-based services vendor SquareLoop as chairman of its advisory board — makes a lot of sense. It is obvious that the present paradigm is broken. Moreover, several recurring themes have emerged from stakeholders focused on this critically important issue, including the following:

  • Procurement of public-safety radio systems is tedious, localized and expensive. It also requires much time on the part of public-safety personnel. This preserves the conundrum.

  • Radio communications technology purchased today generally is obsolete as soon as it is purchased and often has far less features than what can be accessed on commercial wireless phones.

  • Maintenance on new digital trunked radio systems requires a higher degree of expertise and is much more expensive.

  • The present method of radio-system procurement does not necessarily ensure interoperability with other localities, agencies or entities.

  • New and existing radio systems today have a specific lifespan that generally requires an expensive and revolving replacement. Generally, these systems do not evolve. Most of the public-safety leaders that I've spoken with do not wish to go through the process of finding the money for future radio system replacement.

  • Although millions of dollars have been — and will be — awarded to public safety for communications, these funds may or may not achieve the desired outcome.

  • P25 is not the panacea for public-safety communications.

As if to reinforce the paradigm question, a reader responding to a column that editor Glenn Bischoff wrote in the Nov. 18, 2004, MRT Bulletin, this publication's weekly e-newsletter, effectively summarized the current situation and offered a potential solution.

“We have now been talking about the need for interoperable radios for more than three decades — after every big fire, every big tornado, every big flood, every big town-line-crossing disaster — and we still don't have those mythical, dreamed-for interoperable radios,” the reader stated. “Across the country, every small town, sheriff's department, fire house and ambulance service still acts as its own little fiefdom, with its own little budget, its own little politics, its own little petty jealousies, its own little unique purchasing requirements. … Perhaps we need a little bit of regulation.

“Such regulation should stipulate that public-safety agencies won't get a single penny of state or federal money, for any computer or communication system, unless it is fully standards-compliant, fully E911-compliant [and] fully capable of communicating with every emergency-response agency, every adjacent town, [and] every adjacent county.”

During a floor speech addressing interoperable communications on Sept. 13, 2005, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated, “Congress has also begun to fund the purchase of interoperable communications equipment for localities. Some 50,000 local, state and federal agencies make independent decisions about communications systems and use various frequencies. This is unacceptable and a waste of government resources.”

Clearly, a different approach must be taken to improve the state of public-safety communications in the U.S. In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security's Project SAFECOM released its first Statement of Requirements (SoR) for public-safety wireless communications. I was one of many first responders (police, fire and EMS) who participated in a collective forum to develop a document that outlined operational needs and desires for such communications.

The document focuses on the functional incident/scenario-based applications while trying to avoid defining any specific technological solutions. The idea is to direct innovators, manufacturers and vendors to develop the most efficient and cost-effective means to provide the technology to meet these needs.

Although the SoR gives the basis for reinventing public-safety wireless communications, much more must be accomplished. Looking forward, we all will benefit from encouraging innovators and entrepreneurs to contact Morgan O'Brien and join this spirit of exploration into the possibilities that may lead to a brave new world of more effective public-safety communications.


Charles Werner is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and presently serves as chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department. He serves on several state and federal interoperability groups.