info 05.15.06

In Case of Emergency

We've been critical of the City in recent months for its laggardly response in improving communications among emergency first responders. The inability to communicate between the police and fire departments was a contributing factor in the death toll on September 11th, one that we have been increasingly concerned would be repeated if the City didn't act, and act soon.

The City announced last week plans to test two competing wireless technologies for emergency responders, one from Motorola and one from Northrop Grumman. After the six-month, $2.7 million testing program in lower Manhattan is complete, the City will determine if either program will be implemented, with an estimated price tag of $500 million over the five years it would take to construct. If one of the companies is chosen and the technology adopted, it will be a decade after September 11th that the city's first responders would benefit. That's not exactly government swinging into action (the technical challenges are admittedly formidable), but it is a positive step. It's not, however, enough.

In a dire emergency, it isn't only bravery that carries the day, you have to have information, too. That's what leapt out at us watching the excruciating two hours of "United 93." Without the use of Airfones and cell phones, without the crucial information gleaned during those phone calls that other planes had been used as weapons, the passengers might well have made the entirely reasonable decision that remaining passive was their best chance of survival. Among their extraordinary feats of that morning, those passengers got the information they needed, made sense of the incomprehensible, and then acted on it.

That's why we believe the City has not thought deeply or boldly enough about developing an infrastructure for the future that incorporates first-responder communications as well as technology that will allow citizens to transmit information in a natural disaster or terrorist strike. New Yorkers need to be further empowered to help themselves in an emergency, through cell phones (or WiFi or whatever technology emerges), just as the flight 93 passengers did. While the City announced a telecommunications plan last year that proposed extending broadband access, it was geared toward business. That's shortsighted. The City needs a more far-reaching and imaginative plan that incorporates the issue of public safety.

Andrew Rasiej, an advisor to Senators, Congressmen, and candidates on information technology issues, said, "It's always good that the police and fire departments are moving ahead but unfortunately that doesn't seem to recognize that the public is as important to security and the importance of the public being able to access wireless networks — because in any kind of emergency, the best defense is a robust communication system."

The city instead has created a top-down solution, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) that is an outgrowth of the now-retired Emergency Broadcast System. The EAS is designed to allow the mayor to disseminate information via radio and television stations during a crisis. The problem with this dishearteningly old-fashioned system is there is sure to be a lag time between an attack and governmental action or dissemination of information. Even assuming that the Mayor could make effective use of the EAS, there is no way he will have all the necessary information at any given moment in the crisis to provide thorough and accurate guidance. It wasn't the government, remember, that provided help to the passengers of United 93. In an attack that may be more deadly and far-reaching than 9/11, we are going to need a cooperative response between government and citizens. (It's why cell phones should not be banned in public schools).

September 11th has frequently been called a 'failure of imagination.' While it's not pleasant to spend time contemplating worst-case scenarios for New York City, it takes little power of the imagination to see the chaos that could quickly develop if, for example, the city had to be evacuated or hospitals were overrun. Improving communication technologies won't prevent an attack, and may not obviate chaos in the aftermath of one, but it can give us the tools and the chance to respond rationally as surely as it did on United 93. The City must recognize that government can no longer handle disaster response apart from citizens — it's a point of view that the City doesn't seem to have grasped yet, and for which we are almost certain to pay a heavy price.


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