Silence isn’t golden — it’s frightening
On Sept. 11, 2001, I took the chronic inability to use my mobile phone in stride. Instinctively, I knew there was no way the commercial cellular infrastructure would be able to keep up with the crush of calls that day.
Plus, I was a thousand miles away from the carnage. I was safe and my family and friends were safe. And though horrified by the day’s events, the people who most care about me knew I would be okay, because the government uncharacteristically had acted in warp speed to ground all flights, meaning that no jets would be crashing into Chicago icons such as the Sears Tower or the John Hancock Center. While inconvenient, the inability to communicate that day registered fairly low on the gut-wrench meter.
This wasn’t the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I have a very good friend who is a lifelong resident of the Big Easy. He and I have talked many times over the past decade-and-a-half about hurricanes. One of the things we’ve talked about at length is his penchant for staying in New Orleans during hurricanes, even when many — if not most — of his neighbors are fleeing. His philosophy is that if something were to happen to his home during the storm, he would want to be right there to deal with it immediately.
I understood the thinking. Being a lifelong Midwesterner, I have grown accustomed to the dangers of tornadoes. It is not unusual in my town, about 45 miles northwest of Chicago, for the tornado sirens to go off several times each spring and summer. One evening, when I was 17, a tornado came through my neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Fortunately, it didn’t touch down. But it did tear chimneys off roofs, sucked the water out of several aboveground swimming pools, twisted baseball backstops, toppled dozens of trees and felled numerous power lines. The next morning the neighborhood collectively shrugged its shoulders and went to work. The ensuing winter was good for those fireplace owners who hadn’t lost their chimneys — firewood was aplenty.
But Katrina was different. The sheer magnitude of its size and power and the fact it was bearing down on a city in a bowl made it a terrifying prospect. I thought about my friend, a freelance photographer who is as intelligent as he is talented. Surely this would be the storm that would finally force him to flee New Orleans.
Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing or finding out. The only number I had for him was his wireless number, and there was no way to get a wireless call through. As the situation became more dismal each day — indeed, each hour — a feeling of dread enveloped me and I feared the worst. On the catastrophe’s fourth day, I read a newspaper item that said some text messages were getting through to the region because they required less power than cellular calls. I tried it, and less than 24 hours later heard from my friend, who was safe and sound at his sister’s place in Baton Rouge, having beaten the hurricane by less than eight hours.
He told me of the exodus from New Orleans up Interstate 10, which took about five hours to cover the 80 miles. It would have taken at least twice that, according to my friend, had officials not reversed the flow of the southbound lanes so that all would be heading away from New Orleans.
The interstate highway system was designed with this in mind. President Dwight Eisenhower — who is credited as the father of the system even though it first was contemplated in the 1930s during the Franklin Roosevelt administration — saw how effectively the Germans used the Autobahn during World War II for troop movements — it also was used by the Allies once they entered the country — and wanted a similar infrastructure for the U.S. that also could be used for massive evacuations of cities in the event of a nuclear attack by the former Soviet Union.
Another important characteristic of the interstate highway system is that it is a federal initiative. The Eisenhower administration and Congress presciently determined that if left solely to the states, an interstate highway system could have taken the form of a patchwork quilt with major chunks missing.
Also, the federal government had exacting standards for the system — it needed to accommodate vehicle speeds up to 70 miles per hour, access to the highways had to be strictly controlled, the highways themselves had to be at least two lanes in each direction, the lanes had to be 12 feet in width and they had to have a 10-foot-wide right shoulder. Given the fact that the states had differing philosophies and resources based on regionality and population density, there was a real danger that the consistency sought by Washington could be compromised. So, while the states were entrusted with the task of building the roadways, the funding primarily came from the federal budget, which made it easier for Washington to keep the states in line.
Compare this approach to today’s efforts to achieve interoperable first responder communications. The Department of Homeland Security’s Project SAFECOM, which is in place to expand interoperability nationwide, wisely has insisted upon region-wide consensus on interoperability plans as a criterion for receiving federal grants. It’s a good strategy, as there is no sense in spending millions of taxpayer dollars on communications systems that can’t talk to each other in a given region.
However, it’s not enough. During last month’s Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Denver, Michael Coleman, division chief of the Douglas County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Department and president of the Consolidated Communications Network for Colorado — which has developed a statewide communications system used by 400 agencies and 20,000 subscribers — said it took two years for the founding agencies just to “agree on what we needed to agree on,” to get the ball rolling.
America doesn’t have that kind of time in a post-9/11 world. There are too many personalities, agendas, philosophies and resource disparities on the state and local level to think that nationwide interoperability will be achieved without the federal government taking the reins. Consequently, the time has come for the creation of a comprehensive national interoperability communications plan. The FCC took the first step toward that goal this week by establishing a homeland-security bureau within the commission.
Now the Bush Administration and Congress should take the next step by taking a page from the 1950s and applying the vision of President Eisenhower — which resulted in one of the great engineering feats in U.S. history and an infrastructure that made America more productive and secure — to create a communications system that will make the country’s first responders more effective and keep them, and those they serve, safer.
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