A decade later, military and public-safety communications have come a long way
The news that the United States finally got its man — Osama Bin Laden — after a decade-long pursuit sparked feelings of jubilation and unleashed expressions of great joy and patriotism amongst Americans from coast to coast. Many of them took to the streets in New York City and our nation’s capital to share their joy — indeed, one college student reportedly drove to Washington from Wilmington, Del., to join the celebration. Who could blame them? Certainly not I, for doing so would be hypocritical — upon hearing the first report of Bin Laden’s death I let out a triumphant shout that scared the living hell out of our dog, and maybe my neighbors too. I haven’t yelled that loud about anything since the White Sox won the World Series six years ago.
But this event also unleashed a flood of memories. I was working for sister publication Telephony (now Connected Planet) at the time of the attacks and had been sent to New York to hastily pull together and moderate a panel discussion on how the nation’s telephone infrastructure — both wired and wireless — handled the torrent of calls on Sept. 11, 2001. To do this, I had to fly from Phoenix — where I was attending another conference — on a one-way ticket. Because the terrorists also had been flying on one-way tickets, I was subjected to a very comprehensive search of my luggage — I mean they went through everything, including the dirty laundry. Upon landing at LaGuardia Airport, I was greeted by soldiers in full battle gear. Though all of this was bizarre and a bit unnerving, I really didn’t mind. “Safe always is better than sorry,” is one of my mantras.
A few weeks later, I was sent back to New York. This time I would write an article on the recovery effort facing Verizon concerning its facility that was heavily damaged when 7 World Trade Center collapsed and rolled into it in avalanche fashion. (A year after that, I would return to file an update.) That too was a bizarre and sobering experience. I remember well standing on one of the upper floors of this facility and peering down upon the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. I did so through an enormous hole in the wall that had been torn open when girders flew through the air like giant javelins and crashed into the building, which was the original headquarters of the New York Telephone Co. (Recall that New York City was born at the southern tip of Manhattan and then expanded northward.) The memory of this experience still raises goose bumps.
Thinking about all of that reminded me of the keynote speech delivered this year at the International Wireless Communications Expo in Las Vegas — an event that my company organizes — by Col. Mark Tillman, the former commander of Air Force One. Tillman told many great stories of his experiences and recounted in great detail what he encountered in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as he worked feverishly not only to transport President Bush, but to ensure his safety. “Job one is to keep the president safe,” Tillman said.
Eventually, he spoke about the communications capabilities at his and the president’s disposal that day, which were nowhere near as advanced as they are today. For instance, there was no satellite TV aboard Air Force One, so they couldn’t watch any of the news coverage until they were on the ground. Nor was there any way to stream video from the aircraft. “They wanted America to see and hear the president that day, but we didn’t have the capability back then,” Tillman said. “We do now.”
They also have broadband Internet access now, which is quite handy, particularly for the president’s staff. However, Tillman said that “it would help to make it more robust.” He added that Air Force One also could use high-powered, instantaneous communications with the ground — “And not just satellite,” Tillman said. “Satellite can be compromised.”
Going over my notes from Tillman’s speech caused me to think about how much military and public-safety communications have evolved in the 10 years since the terrorist attacks. Reportedly, the military used unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct surveillance of the compound where Bin Laden was hiding. I’m not sure that such a capability existed a decade ago, but if it did, it was a novelty. Today, the use of drones for many purposes, such as border control, is ubiquitous. And 10 years ago, mobile data still was the stuff of dreams. Now, first responders are able to execute video-surveillance operations, conduct in-the-field video conferences with emergency medical professionals, transmit images and data of victims while en route to the hospital, and download vital documents such as building floor plans while at the scene. And it’s only going to get better once the proposed nationwide broadband network for public safety becomes a reality.
It’s difficult to think in terms of a silver lining when one contemplates the cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 of one’s countrymen in a series of attacks orchestrated by a complete madman. Nevertheless, the tragedies of 9/11 stand as the ultimate example of a sow’s ear being turned into a silk purse, for they put into motion a transformation of first-responder communications that never would have occurred otherwise — and there’s more to come, hopefully in the near future. For that we can be grateful.
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