Accept no substitutes
On March 1, after the terrible tornado hit Enterprise, Ala., emergency response communications were in chaos, according to reports from the Associated Press.
After years of interoperability issues with public-safety agencies unable to talk to each other on their radio systems, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security in 2004 used an $18 million federal grant to purchase new radio equipment that would ultimately resolve those issues.
In this disaster, however, emergency responders first tried using their cell phones rather than utilize the state’s $18 million emergency communications upgrade, according to officials cited in the AP reports.
After Hurricane Katrina, cell phone towers went down and service went out for several days, a communications disaster in itself. But that didn’t happen in Enterprise when March roared in like a lion. The nearby Southern LINC cell phone tower remained in service during this emergency.
The problem was that as storms swept through Alabama, Missouri and Georgia, everybody tried to make emergency calls on their cell phones. Traffic on the Southern LINC network tripled, the system was quickly overwhelmed and many callers — including emergency responders — simply couldn’t get through.
“Too many dropped calls,” as we hear on the TV ads for cell phone service providers.
According to the AP reports, most emergency responders in Coffee County, Ala., use “wireless phones and walkie-talkies” on the Southern LINC system for day-to-day communications. When warned that severe storm and tornado conditions were getting close, first responders first went to their cell phones.
Emergency communications became part of the problem rather than the solution because the cell phone system was unreliable in this situation.
The AP reports quoted Alabama’s Homeland Security Director Jim Walker as explaining that “people were frustrated, but all they had to do was turn on their radios.”
Coffee County Deputy Emergency Management Director Larry Walker was quoted by AP as noting that when the emergency responders eventually switched from cell phones back to radios, “that system worked fine.”
What is going on here? Are we forgetting all we have learned after years of engineering public-safety radio communications technology?
Cell phones are convenient, and many of us carry them. If an emergency happens, civilians want their cell phones handy. But cell phones are no substitute for land mobile radio systems dedicated to emergency response communications. Some first responders are apparently using their cell phones for emergency response anyway. That’s the wrong strategy.
The cell phone industry sees the opportunity in the first responder market. Walkie-talkie and push-to-talk cell phone services are promoting themselves to the public-safety community.
They are free to compete, of course. But be aware of the full story on cell phones — functionality, reliability under emergency conditions, never-ending time charges among the many issues for first responders.
One of my associates questioned a cell phone salesman about his company’s claim to offer “interoperability” between public-safety agencies using their service. “Well, if the fire chief in my town wants to talk to the fire chief in the next town, he can just call the other chief’s cell phone number.”
Don’t be fooled. Cell phone services do not replace public-safety radio communications infrastructure, let alone technology.
David P. Storey is president and CEO of RELM Wireless Corp., a manufacturer and marketer of mobile radio equipment for public-safety and government agencies, as well as business-band radios serving a wide range of commercial applications, for six decades.