Katrina provides needed wake-up call
It truly is amazing how a few days can change our world so completely. While there are numerous examples of that throughout history, we have experienced two such touchstones in just the past four years.
Although the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina were not about communications, our industry became a crucial part of the story.
Unfortunately, the first water pump had not started working again before stories were coursing through the Internet about how certain communications systems weren’t built correctly or how the disaster proved that certain kinds of system aren’t proper for public safety, and on and on. A feeding frenzy commenced at a time when our attention should be directed strictly to helping — not to being a Monday-morning quarterback.
On the other hand, one hopes that if there is one positive that can come from this, it is that we will put to good use the lessons learned from this experience, once we have a true grasp of the facts and the value of hindsight. To begin, the FCC is creating a blue ribbon panel to conduct an independent review of Katrina’s impact. The panel is expected to make recommendations to the FCC that will improve disaster preparedness, network robustness and reliability, and public-safety operations.
Chairman Kevin Martin also is reorganizing the FCC and creating a new Public Safety/Homeland Security Bureau. We don’t know at this time how that might impact those folks in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, but it certainly is a good thing to place additional emphasis on the public-safety communications system. My only concern is that there will be a de-emphasis on private radio operations. Unfortunately, there’s too much of a tendency today to dismiss non-commercial, non-public-safety radio operations as merely being taxi-dispatching services. Rather, private radio operations span services in sectors — e.g., utilities management, airline-support operations and hazardous spill coordination at chemical plants — that have critical public-safety aspects to their operations. Hopefully this won’t be lost in the shuffle.
If the blue ribbon panel is not composed strictly of politicos, if agendas can be set aside (as in, how can one’s company be selected for the next cushy government contract and be the sole provider for new equipment) and if the proper balance between CEOs and on-the-street personnel can be achieved, then the panel has the potential to re-write the book on communications, truly setting policy for the 21st century for the first time.
I want to see the panel, and the FCC’s reorganization, given every chance to succeed. At a minimum, last month’s events should be viewed as a wake-up call for municipalities that spend too little time and money providing the proper communications support for their first responders. Instead of spending money equipping every nook and cranny of their cities with free Wi-Fi for their citizens, let’s hope that Katrina and its aftermath spurs innovation and emphasis on building 700 MHz and 4.9 GHz systems, as well as ensuring that additional spectrum in the 700 MHz band can be made available for broadband public-safety operations.
For public-safety professionals, there also must be an increase in cooperation between municipalities and agencies within the municipalities. Too often, interoperability and efficient division of valuable spectrum becomes the province of arguments, which usually boil down to nothing more than protecting turf and preferred vendors. We must move beyond these interpersonal issues, too, to ensure that the next time there is a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, not only will the infrastructure stand, but professionals will know how to use it efficiently and effectively.
Finally, my thanks go out to those telecom professionals that weathered the storm and did their best with a crumbling infrastructure and also to those telecom professionals nationwide who went down to the Gulf region to help put things back together. From 911 dispatchers from North Carolina and other states, to radio dealers from various parts of the country, many selflessly left their homes and families to help those in need. We can’t ever thank them enough.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio, Internet and entertainment industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.