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Do utilities belong?
Communications partnerships between public safety and utilities are not unprecedented, as examples exist in the narrowband LMR arena in the states of Nebraska and Nevada, Bender said. And the notion of public safety and utilities sharing access to a 700 MHz LTE network has been proposed by several cities, including Seattle and Charlotte, N.C.
There is little question that utilities should be treated like fire, EMS and law enforcement during many emergencies, according to Mirgon.
"A number of times, I have been out at a major gas-line break. You've rolled out [public safety], this gas line is spewing natural gas, you're evacuating people, you call dispatch and say, 'We need the gas company. Would you call them?'" Mirgon said during a session at IWCE in February. "The phone's busy, because they're getting calls from other people. When you finally get them … [the gas company says] it will be there in 45 minutes, because it's on the other side of town. Meanwhile, this thing could still blow up.
"Now, I ran Code 3 through red lights and stop signs and around traffic to protect people. The fire department did the same thing to protect people. But the one guy who can shut it off is stopped at the red light with no traffic around. I get the fact that they're not first responders, but it's also kind of absurd that the people who can fix the problem aren't treated like first responders in those very unique scenarios."
In March, a fire at a 115,000-volt electrical transformer fire in Boston forced the local electrical utility to cut off power to about 20,000 customers for an extended period of time. While the fire was controlled and the matter was handled with relatively little incident — there were no reports of looting, for instance — the response to the situation was not as efficient as it could have been, said Don Denning, the city of Boston's chief information officer for public safety.
"One of the complaints by the fire chief was that we couldn't communicate with [the local utility] effectively enough in the early hours," Denning said.
While the incidents noted by Mirgon and Denning were localized, the prospect of utility-related situations impacting a much larger geographic area are very real, as exemplified by the East Coast blackout of 2003 and last year's threat of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Japan after a massive tsunami hit the area.