info 12.6.05

First Responder Communications

The 9/11 Public Discourse Project, which evolved from the 9/11 Commission, released a report yesterday that gave failing grades on implementation of the security initiatives previously recommended by the bipartisan panel. Of the many problems depicted by the Commission, the fact that first responder communications is no better in New York City today than it was four years ago is particularly distressing.

At issue is 'spectrum,' which is the pipeline that provides the flow for television broadcasting and digital services. In particular, the question is how fast to make the switch from analog television to digital television. If that happened tomorrow, many of the wideband analog channels that television broadcasters no longer needed would be put in the service of public safety — most importantly for first responder communications infrastructure. But if the switchover happens too quickly, wealthier Americans would be able to purchase new equipment while poorer Americans would effectively be left without television service. Bills in the House and Senate do not compel the return of spectrum until 2009.

We wondered, is there not anything that could be done, at least in the short term, to provide more effective communication among first responders? It turns out that there is.

Stephen Carrol-Cahnmann, director of Digital Convergence for Thirteen/WNET, says, "There is TV spectrum available today that's not being used optimally." There is a section of spectrum that exists, called the Educational Broadband Service, which is reserved for community colleges, the Catholic Archdiocese, and some public television stations. "This channel is wideband channel," Mr. Carrol-Cahnmann says, "just like a regular TV channel — it can carry and deliver video, which makes it the killer app for first responders." The video capabilities could prove enormously valuable in an emergency: think of the advantage rescuers would have if they were able to see say, building blueprints in 3-D relief during the rescue operation. (Of course, as things stand, police and firefighters can't even talk with each other, never mind 3-D blueprints.)

Thirteen/WNET, working with Rosettex Technology and Ventures Group, operating with money from the federal government's National Technology Alliance, has developed a solution called Smart Nets that could be implemented fairly quickly. They've conducted testing on the system and given federal and local officials demonstrations of it. This Educational Broadband Service bandwidth is plentiful and available in communities nationwide. That means implementation here could provide a model to be used across the country, even though no one solution is going to fit all communities — there are far too many legacy technologies and local variations for that to be practical. But crucially, "EBS allows us to get to work today," says Mr. Carrol-Cahnmann.

So what's the city doing about it? A spokesman for the The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which oversees the city's use of emerging technologies, says, "The City will be starting a pilot within the next month to determine the best technical solution for building out a citywide wireless mobile network to support the City's first responders. At this time DoITT has no comment on what other groups within the City are doing."

That's not good enough. Where is the evidence of progress or even a sense of urgency? New Orleans learned that if you play against the clock, you can lose badly. We know another attack will come. We know that current first responder communication technology is unacceptable and that lives are at risk as a result. What does DoITT and the City plan to say to grieving families of firefighters and policemen when they ask for accountability? What will the Mayor say when he is asked, 'why has this taken so long?'
The WTC Site
Zero Culture will be a panel discussion "about the polarization between memorial and culture as it applies to the rebuilding plans for the World Trade Center site." Panelists will include Tom Bernstein, co-founder and chairman of the International Freedom Center, Mike Wallace, director of the Gotham Center for NYC History, and it will be moderated by Paul Goldberger, dean of Parsons. It takes place at the New School on December 12th, 7:30pm, $8 admission. Tickets are available at 212.229.5488.


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