Talking Through Disasters: The Federal Role in Emergency Communications

Report Defense

Talking Through Disasters: The Federal Role in Emergency Communications

July 17, 2006 15 min read Download Report
Jim Carafano
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

From September 11, 2001, to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress and the Bush Administration have wrestled with the challenge of improving emergency management communications. An unprecedented federal spending spree has yielded scant progress, however, and Washington's programs should be scrapped. It is unlikely that they will ever be able to achieve, either efficiently or effectively, the goal of cre­ating the kind of emergency communication systems the nation needs to respond to national disasters.

The right approach would include adhering to a set of policies that promote effective public-private sharing of the emergency management electromagnetic spec­trum, create a national capability to deploy a wide-area emergency management communications network for catastrophic disasters, and establish coherent national leadership for emergency response communications.

What Is Being Done?

In the rush to enhance emergency management communications after 9/11, the government's solu­tion has been to throw money at the problem, mostly through a variety of federal grants.[1] The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications Program (SAFECOM), but SAFECOM has very limited author­ity either to oversee and coordinate federal, regional, and state efforts or to direct funding.

SAFECOM was an E-government project initiated by the Office of Management and Budget before the department was created.[2] By some estimates, SAFE­COM programs will require over 20 years and $40 billion to achieve a national interoperable emer­gency communications system.[3] Likewise, a pro­posed National Integrated Network that would bring together federal law enforcement agents from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Treasury into a single wireless infrastructure may take 15 years to build with a price tag esti­mated at up to $10 billion.[4]

In short, the federal government is spending a great deal of money on projects that are not well-coordinated.

Throwing money at the problem is a troubling strategy. The government's record with information technology acquisition and implementation is poor. Typically, programs lack clear requirements, as well as strong executive leadership, and underestimate the time, money, and human capital necessary to achieve what is needed. Federal efforts to promote more effective emergency management communica­tions show little promise of doing better.

What Is Required?

Emergency responders-the millions of law enforcement, fire, medical, public services, and volunteer groups and private-sector assets that save lives and property in the aftermath of disasters- need communications that have assured:

  • Capacity to get them the information they need to respond to both everyday missions and major disasters. That capacity must include (1) getting the right kinds of information, whether it is from other responders, agencies, jurisdic­tions, or levels of government; (2) obtaining information in the form they require-voice, data, or video; and (3) receiving it in a timely manner in the volumes required, whether it be through instant messaging or reams of techni­cal data.
  • Access to communications. Responders must have services that work in an emergency envi­ronment, whether it is rescuing injured persons underground, placing a call when phone lines are flooded with people calling 911, or access­ing the Internet after a storm has wiped out power lines or an earthquake has cut under­ground cables.
  • Security that responders can trust. Responders must have confidence that critical information sharing can occur without monitoring or dis­ruption that would interfere with their ability to render assistance effectively or ensure the safety of other responders.

Most communications experts agree that there is no "silver bullet" solution that can address all these needs. They all concur, however, that the technol­ogies needed to provide the right services exist today. Commercial off-the-shelf technologies, such as cellular service, video-streaming, and Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP), are robust and mature. The challenge is applying them to the needs of responders.

What Is the Priority?

Enormous confusion persists about what Wash­ington should be doing to support the establish­ment of more effective communications for the nation's responders. The simplistic and often-repeated mantra that responders need "interopera­ble" communications fails to describe the real requirements.[5] A better approach is needed.

Congress and the Bush Administration are right to focus on the communications requirements of responders, but they first need to understand the real needs in order to foster useful and affordable solutions. There are three significant challenges that present themselves in almost every large-scale disaster:[6]

  • Convergence. The most common problem at a disaster is too much-not too little-aid. In disasters, public and private responders tend to converge on a disaster, choking the scene with people, equipment, and supplies that create security and safety risks, logistical nightmares, and confusion that hinders the delivery of help.
  • Lack of interagency planning. Plans fail not because responders have not planned how to respond, but because they have failed to coor­dinate and exercise their plans with one another. This problem persists both within jurisdictions and across levels of government and the private sector.
  • Lack of information. Knowing the location and nature of threats (natural or man-made), victims, responders, and available assets, as well as conditions in the area, can be extremely difficult. The press for time, chaos, stress, and the inability to deliver vast amounts of data in a usable form can all make the problem of deal­ing with disasters much worse.

Effective communications can be of significant help in addressing all of these issues by getting the right information to the right person at the right time.

Interoperable radios are one means by which to share information, but they are not always the best, the most efficient, or the most effective. Not all responders need to talk to each other. In fact, hav­ing too many users (fire and police, for example) sharing a communications network can overload a system, slowing coordination or sowing confusion. Pursuing interoperability as an end in itself is a bad strategy, as is spending vast amounts of money on capabilities that are not essential, not appropriate, or perhaps not even needed.

Addressing the most serious problems requires more sophisticated solutions than simply demand­ing vast amounts of federal tax dollars for interop­erable communications, and deciding how the federal government can best address communica­tions shortfalls requires understanding Washing­ton's proper role. Responding to emergencies is primarily a state and local government mission.[7]

The federal government should therefore focus on the tasks that only Washington can perform. Only the federal government can integrate the efforts of local, state, regional, and private-sector assets into a national response system that enables the nation as a whole to support local communities in the event of a disaster. It is Washington's job to ensure the means and capacity for all jurisdictions to "plug" into a national system. Additionally, the federal government should concentrate on responding to catastrophic disasters that put tens of thousands of lives and bil­lions of dollars in property at risk-dangers that would overwhelm the capacity of any state or local government.

With regard to emergency management commu­nications, creating a national response network and responding to catastrophic disasters should define where Washington puts its priority effort. There are three aspects to emergency management communi­cations:

  • Responding to everyday demands (the fires, criminal acts, and accidents that happen in com­munities routinely);
  • Establishing regional and national communica­tions so that local, state, and federal public and private assets can be coordinated; and
  • Operating under severe conditions when infra­structure is degraded (a widespread blackout, for example) or overwhelmed by a surge in demand (such as when the New York 911 system crashed after the World Trade Center collapsed).

Clearly, Washington should focus on the second two, which are consistent with the federal mandate of creating a national system and responding to cata­strophic disasters.

What Are the Best Policies?

Federal emergency management communications effort should be focused exclusively on the highest federal priorities-building the capacity for jurisdic­tions across the country to share critical information, act in a collaborative manner, and operate even when normal telecommunications systems are wiped out or overwhelmed.

Even with the right priorities, however, it will be difficult for the federal government to enhance the role it plays unless it adopts policies that address the major obstacles to building better capabilities. These policies include the following.

Policy #1: Put First Things First

Wireless communications will form the back­bone of any emergency communications system. In a wireless system, information is transmitted over parts of the electromagnetic spectrum rather than through wire lines or cables. This is important because in a disaster, infrastructure such as phone lines or switching trunks might be disrupted.

Additionally, responders may need information in places where there are no fixed communications sys­tems available. In these cases, the federal govern­ment plays a significant role. The electromagnetic spectrum that carries wireless communications is managed by the federal government. Some is auc­tioned for commercial use. Other spectrum is allo­cated for public purposes. Current federal policies do not facilitate creating a national emergency net­work or building the capacity for responding to cat­astrophic disasters.

Federal, state, and local public safety agencies already have a large allocation of spectrum for emergency responders. The problem is that the allocation is scattered throughout the frequency band, which is grossly inefficient. Compared to the commercial use of the spectrum, emergency response networks carry a much smaller number of transactions with only an intermittent surge in demand. As a result, bandwidth is significantly underutilized.

In turn, local jurisdictions manage their spec­trum by breaking allocations into smaller pools of channels for each individual agency (such as giving fire departments in neighboring communities their own dedicated channels). Further splitting the spectrum exacerbates the inefficiency of underuti­lization. In many cases, federal, state, and local responders do not even have the capacity to share spectrum when they are all working in the same region and responding to the same crisis.[8]

The commercial space uses the spectrum about 20 times more efficiently than governments use it.[9] The spectrum licensed to federal, state, and local public safety users supports fewer than 3 million users across the U.S. In contrast, commercial oper­ators (such as Sprint and T-Mobile) support about 80 million users in a comparable amount of spec­trum. Additionally, the commercial networks pro­vide both voice and high-speed data. Most public safety networks carry voice service only.

With a relatively small number of users, the emergency management spectrum holds little attraction for private-sector service providers. There is virtually no incentive for private-sector investment. Economies of scale cannot be used to spur investments, to innovate, and to reduce costs. However, that could change if federal policies cre­ated commercial opportunities.

Policy #2: Open Emergency Management Frequencies as Dual-Use Spectrum

The government should provide the private sector with opportunities to offer commercial services in bandwidth that currently is reserved for public safety agencies. In turn, the private sector could invest in building up capacity for emergency services to operate within the spectrum and provide state-of-the-art, low-cost, secure services and guaranteed access during disaster situations. Prohibitions against sharing the public safety spectrum should be eliminated, and federal agencies should have greater flexibility in deciding how to share, sell, or barter spectrum to obtain the emergency communications services they need from the private sector.

Legacy Investments.Even if responders shared spectrum with the private sector, this would not completely solve the problem. For decades, public safety agencies have deployed a plethora of tech­nologies, much of them outdated compared to what is commercially available. Many public safety agencies have technology that is so old that it is not compatible with commercial systems.

In part, the public safety spectrum is organized to accommodate the older, narrow-band technologies. This means that the frequencies available for emer­gency services cannot support high-speed data trans­missions like streaming video, VoIP, or large amounts of digital data such as building floor plans, informa­tion on dealing with hazardous materials, or various kinds of geospatial data like traffic and wind patterns.

While the responders' legacy systems have short­comings, it is unrealistic to believe that these sys­tems can be scrapped wholesale, with the federal government paying equipment, training, and replacement costs. By some estimates, there are over 44,000 local and state agencies that each have their own unique systems and requirements.[10]

Policy #3: Don't Send Money; Set Standards

Rather than trying to fix the problem, the federal government's first priority should be to keep it from getting worse. National standards should be set that would migrate systems over time into a common, open architecture that is compatible with industry standards and could utilize commercial off-the-shelf technologies to provide responders with state-of-the-art systems. These would enable responders to talk to one another, utilizing the kind of bandwidth necessary for robust communications.

For example, the problems hindering voice interoperability could be addressed as agencies pro­cured networks built on a common IP-based stan­dard. IP-based systems would allow interoperability across multiple agencies, jurisdictions, and geo­graphic areas, as well as with commercial, cellular-based networks, eliminating the need to build expensive, dedicated, private proprietary networks.

In addition to standards for communications systems, standards must be established for the recovery and reconstitution of critical infrastruc­ture that supports these networks. This should extend to assets that support critical risk communi­cations for average citizens, such as public warning systems and emergency services like 911.

Land-Based Systems. Current public safety net­works are based primarily on mobile, land-based communications, such as the radios in police cars and fire trucks. In turn, these report to fixed, land-based sites such as police stations and emergency operations centers. These networks often prove inadequate to support robust responses to large-scale disasters. They are optimized for voice com­munications, lacking the capacity to exploit cut­ting-edge technologies like broadband services. Emergency service networks also have limited power and range. Ground-based signals can be masked by high buildings, underground subways, and terrain features such as hills and forests.

Additionally, ground-based signals are vulnerable. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers numerous examples of flooding that wiped out roads, cell tow­ers, and fire stations, or of communications that went out because generators ran out of fuel or radios lacked fresh batteries. The attack on the World Trade Center destroyed New York City's emergency opera­tions center. Overall, land-based systems are inade­quate to "scale-up" to meeting the needs of responding to catastrophic disasters.

On the other hand, non-terrestrially based sys­tems remain highly resilient in the face of disasters. This proved particularly true in the aftermath of Katrina. Satellite-based systems and pagers remained dependable despite the devastation.

There needs to be a supplement to the land-based systems used by local emergency responders, partic­ularly for large-scale disasters that cover a wide area and require jurisdictions to coordinate their activi­ties when much of the supporting infrastructure may be destroyed or unusable. This system should be non-territorially based, using either air or space-borne platforms, or a combination of both. Here, it is appropriate for the federal government to step up and provide the capability to establish an emergency ad hoc, wide-area wireless network to support both existing (voice radio) and emerging (VoIP, geospatial data, and video) capabilities.

Policy #4: Buy Services, Not Infrastructure or Technology

Rather than attempting to develop and deploy a communications architecture along with all the hardware (e.g., planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, aerostats, or satellites) and software, the federal government should buy the services it needs from the private sector. In addition, Washington should not specify particular technological solutions. Gov­ernment should specify performance needs and let the private sector figure out how to best meet the challenge. This will provide cheaper capabilities sooner and allow agencies to upgrade quickly as the commercial sector brings new products and services online.

Who Should Lead?

There is too much federal leadership in disaster emergency management communications. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration manages the spectrum for use by federal agencies. The Federal Communications Commission, however, manages other spectrum allocations and recently established a Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to address public safety, homeland security, national security, emer­gency management and preparedness, and disaster management issues.

In addition, DHS allocates homeland security grants and houses the office that administers SAFE­COM and the National Communications System, which is responsible for the federal emergency communications system. The Departments of Jus­tice and Treasury, along with DHS, are responsible for administering the National Integrated Network. Other federal departments, including the Depart­ments of Defense and Interior, also have equities in domestic emergency communications manage­ment planning.

In other words, a lot of federal stakeholders are at the table, and all of these agencies have impor­tant roles to play. Yet the current organization of federal activities has proved unsatisfactory.[11] It is unrealistic to give all the responsibility to one agency or to put it in charge of an unwieldy inter­agency effort. A more organized effort is necessary.

Policy #5: Match Missions and Resources
to Priorities

Congress should establish legislative mandates for specific federal agencies to perform specific tasks, setting clear deliverables and reasonable milestones for their achievement. Legislation not only would serve as a contract between leaders in Congress and the Bush Administration on the way forward, but also would act as a guide to congressional appropriators, ensuring that bud­get priorities match the priority of effort. The var­ious offices and programs within DHS that are responsible for assorted aspects of communica­tions planning need to be aligned under the appropriate authority in the department (e.g., the Undersecretaries for Preparedness and Science and Technology and the Director of Operations Coordination).

Road Map to the Future

If Congress and the Bush Administration are serious about improving the emergency responder capabilities nationwide, they need to put these principles into practice. That will require:

  • Scaling back bloated, bureaucratic programs and wasteful homeland security and interoper­ability grants;
  • Focusing on developing capabilities to enhance regional information sharing and response to catastrophic disasters;
  • Revising federal policies and laws to open dual-use spectrum for commercial and emer­gency management use, as well as facilitating the sharing of spectrum among local, state, and federal users;
  • Setting national standards to promote open-architecture, non-proprietary systems that are compatible with commercial standards;
  • Establishing services that can provide an emer­gency wide-area network wireless system to sup­port existing responder communications equip­ment and emerging capabilities like VoIP; and
  • Assigning specific missions and responsibili­ties to agencies for the implementation of criti­cal policies.

Taking these steps now will meet the nation's short-term needs for building a truly national responder network that can deal with large-scale disasters. It will also establish the foundation for long-term solutions that can exploit the communica­tions revolution that is occurring in the marketplace.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Pol­icy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. The author would like to thank James L. Gattuso, Senior Research Fellow in Regula­tory Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, and Laura P. Keith, a Research Assistant in the Allison Center, for their assistance with this paper.


Jim Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute