The recovery continues
When the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, New York lost what was arguably the best antenna sites in North America.
At 1,368 feet above street level, 1 WTC (the North Tower) was the tallest building on the eastern seaboard. This is why its 207-square-foot rooftop was dotted with antennas at five-foot intervals. At 1,362 feet, 2 WTC’s rooftop was also home to several antenna sites, including the New York State Police’s primary transmitter site for its Metro-21 800MHz EDACS trunking system. So the loss of the Twin Towers was a serious blow to public safety operators.
Before Sept. 11, communications site provider Pinnacle Towers was responsible for managing 1 WTC’s 42 non-broadcast client antennas. “We covered public safety networks, paging firms, cab companies — the works,” said Pinnacle Towers spokesman Joe Furmanek. Even high-level, “confidential” federal law enforcement agencies had sites there, according to Furmanek.
What was lost
So how have New York’s public safety networks recovered from the loss of the Twin Towers? Details are sketchy because government officials are reluctant to comment.
When the World Trade Center Towers fell, so did the primary site for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s 800MHz Ericsson EDACS trunking system. Also coming down were one of the New York Police Department’s 470MHz repeaters, plus two-way 400MHz Motorola systems used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In addition, the New Jersey Highway Patrol lost an 800MHz trunking system that covered two-thirds of New Jersey.
Pinnacle Towers scrambled to return its 1 WTC clients to the air. “Within 20 minutes of the North Tower collapsing, our staff started compiling alternative sites for our clients,” said Michael Millard, Pinnacle’s vice president of engineering and operations. Pinnacle had two alternative sites to offer: the 687-foot Chemical Bank Building at 277 Park Ave. and the 656-foot Alliance Building at 1345 6th Ave. Although “nowhere near as tall as the WTC was,” Millard said, these two properties still gave the area some degree of coverage.
Within hours, Pinnacle located its clients by phone and email and directed them to its alternative sites. “We also called the landlords of both buildings — we only manage their rooftops; we don’t own them — and advised them to give anyone with the proper government identification access to their rooftops,” Millard recalls. “We didn’t worry about paperwork; we just told our clients to get their antennas up as fast as they could, and we’d deal with the details later.”
Subcarrier Communications, which also had antennas on the World Trade Center, provided alternative sites, too.
Today, the recovery continues
“What we’ve been doing is redesigning and re-engineering Manhattan to provide coverage patterns similar to what was destroyed,” said John Paleski, Subcarrier’s president. “Needless to say, it takes more than one building to replace the WTC site. In fact, in some cases, we’ve had to use as many as five.”
For security reasons, Paleski would not reveal which Sub-carrier buildings were providing replacement coverage. However, he said that the sites were chosen and configured using RadioSoft propagation mapping software.
“We took our existing managed rooftops, plugged them into the WTC’s RF model, and then saw which properties we had that could help replace the lost coverage,” Paleski said. “In some cases, we then had to modify our towers to fill the bill; either by adding steel supports or upgrading their power, telephone or electrical supplies.”
This brings us to the tricky part: trying to say definitively where each of New York’s public safety networks stands today.
When the World Trade Center collapsed, the NYPD lost a 470MHz repeater. Since then, the police department has compensated by adding boosters to its other repeaters and by adding repeaters at other locations, said NYPD spokeswoman Carmen Melindez.
Meanwhile, the Fire Department of New York had lost a repeater on 7 WTC.
“We lost the repeater after the 47-story 7 WTC, which was damaged by debris and caught fire,” said Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. The loss of this repeater seriously compromised service to firefighters using 15-year-old Motorola hand-helds within the WTC site, he added. This, in turn, may have resulted in some FDNY personnel not hearing the order to evacuate, and thus losing their lives when 1 WTC fell.
In addition, a source with the FDNY said that two phone lines were cut by the collapse, which also disrupted radio communications.
The New York State Police coped by moving some of its radio operations into the Chrysler Building. Using a five-channel 800MHz trunking system rushed to them by M/A-Com Wireless Systems, the NYSP connected four antennas and a combiner left over by previous tenants to get this replacement “up and running by the evening of the [Sept.] 12,” said NYSP dispatcher Sergeant Bob Jones last fall. M/A-Com also supplied 200 M-RK hand-held transceivers for the state police. Jones has been unvailable since then for further comment.
Finally, M/A-Com also helped the Port Authority set up a replacement command center in an unspecified location, using M/A-Com equipment shipped from Virginia. Together with the loan of 300 M/A-Com LPE hand-held transceivers, the replacement equipment restored the Port Authority’s radio communications coverage within a day of the attack.
Even with the site replacements and substitutions that New York’s rooftop managers provided, nothing fully replaces a 1,368-foot antenna site other than another 1,368-foot site.
What happens next
The trouble is, another 110-story structure is not likely to be built in New York. There would be too many bad memories associated with the previous colossal structure. Moreover, it could be impossible for most businesses to feel comfortable in a new WTC that might be an attractive target for terrorists.
Thus, the “temporary solutions” adopted by many NYC public safety networks may prove to be permanent. Whether the replacement facilities provide coverage as well as the World Trade Center did — or at least as well as is needed — will be revealed by the results of the next few months of use.
Careless is a freelance telecommunications writer based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Communications at the Pentagon
The Public Safety Wireless Network has released an analysis of how successfully public safety communications worked at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. The report, released in February and called “Answering the Call: Communications Lessons Learned from the Pentagon Attack,” includes steps public safety agencies across the country can take to improve their radio communications.
“The Pentagon incident demonstrates in a very public way how critically important communications capabilities are for public safety agencies,” said Robert E. Lee Jr., PSWN Program Manager. “Imagine the challenge of 50 different local, state and federal public safety agencies responding at the Pentagon — 900 different radio users operating on multiple radio systems, and attempting to communicate with one another.”
Surprisingly, the report found that the because of “mutual-aid” agreements, the majority of local public safety responders at the scene experienced little difficulty establishing interoperable communications during the initial response. Most of the first responders had Arlington County’s radio frequencies pre-programmed into their portable radio equipment and had frequently used the capability for other mutual-aid responses.
The problem of interoperability arose as increased state and federal agencies arrived to help. No means of direct radio communication was immediately available to these secondary responders.
The PSWN report made the following recommendations for public safety agencies to enhance communications interoperability when responding to major or minor incidents:
- Develop regional and statewide communications systems.
- Establish mutual aid agreements and standard operating procedures not only between local agencies but also between state and federal agencies.
- Employ the Incident Command System to enhance communications efforts in emergency response situations.
- Conduct mass casualty and disaster response training drills to identify existing capabilities and potential shortfalls.
- Conduct communications asset inventory to identify tools and their capabilities.
- Adhere to common technology standards in the design, procurement and implementation of future public safety communications systems.