Haitian earthquake another unwanted reminder of first-response needs
A week ago today, a united front of public-safety representatives spent the day in Washington, D.C., where they emphasized the need for 700 MHz D Block spectrum and a nationwide broadband network that would provide a valuable interoperability communications link between emergency-response agencies, particularly in the aftermath of large-scale disasters.
And then a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions happened.
Literally minutes before the public-safety officials conducted a press conference about their meetings with federal lawmakers and policy-makers, a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Since then, the Haitian capital has been the focus of the world, with the entire globe rushing to send aid and prayers amid reports of fatality tolls exceeding 200,000 in the region. The graphic, gut-wrenching images and stories coming from the rubble in the impacted area are certain to be in our hearts and minds for a lifetime. And, the unfortunate reality is that we’ll probably be receiving increasingly bad news from Haiti for some time.
While recovery efforts should be the focus of our attention during this period, this tragedy also should serve as a huge wakeup call to the powers in our nation’s capital that such devastation potentially can strike at any time, and the results are only worsened by a lack of preparation.
Is there really any way to fully prepare for a disaster the scale of the Haitian earthquake? Probably not — there’s no way to anticipate all scenarios when something this awful occurs. The same can be said about 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami or Hurricane Katrina.
But the fact that all of these disasters — and many others — have occurred during the past nine years should underscore the fact that we need to be doing everything possible to ensure that the next one is not accompanied by any avoidable loss of life or property.
That begins with providing our first-response agencies with the tools they need to do their jobs. And the first thing that is needed in every disaster-recovery effort is reliable communications, so first responders can be given solid information and directions to execute plans, as well as deal with the inevitable problems that were not part of the last tabletop discussion or full-scale exercise.
It’s time for Congress to reallocate the D Block to public safety, and — just as important — provide a sustainable funding mechanism to ensure that first responders can communicate when it matters most on a public-safety–grade network supported by mobile contingencies that can be leveraged when infrastructure is wiped out.
When disaster doesn’t strike for some time, it’s easy for policy-makers to become complacent about preparations for events that statistically may not happen for a long time, particularly when money is tight in a bad economy. But this time, Congress has the stark reality of the Haitian earthquake fresh in everyone’s mind as it determines the fate of the D Block and potential avenues for funding a nationwide public-safety network.
We can only hope that lawmakers will pay attention to Mother Nature’s cruel and far-from-subtle hint in Haiti to take the actions necessary to give first responders the communications they need the next time disaster strikes in the United States.