Public Safety Agencies Fortify Communications After Attacks

iXP Corp.'s contract to maintain the emergency 911 system for the New York City Police Department allows the company exactly 5.26 minutes of downtime each year. That's less than one second every 24 hours.

A system like that needs a lot of backup.

"It was designed so that not a single failure of any kind would render the system inoperable," said Richard Dale, chairman and chief executive officer of iXP of Princeton, N.J. As a result, iXP's E-911 system has not gone offline since it was established six years ago, even when the Sept. 11 collapse of the World Trade Center buildings knocked out radio repeaters and transmitters.

"Radio communications as a whole were maintained in the area because of the redundant systems that were in place," Dale said.

Local public safety agencies are relying on companies such as iXP to help them maintain uninterrupted communications. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, these agencies are re-examining their communications architecture and policies, especially with an eye toward responding to future disasters.

Industry and government officials said that in the coming months, public safety agencies will acquire additional mobile and portable equipment and take steps to strengthen the reliability of their fail-safe communications systems.

A substantial degree of federal funding will be necessary to make this happen, said government and industry officials. At press time, Congress was considering a $20 billion emergency appropriations package proposed by the Bush administration that would include $600 million in aid to state and local governments through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help them respond to acts of terrorism.

In the near term, public safety agencies will be looking for a massive influx of emergency communications equipment, such as radios and mobile computing devices, said Ray Lehr, business development manager at TRW Inc., Cleveland.

G.A. "Skip" Funk, president of public-sector solutions for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Information Technology Group, agreed. He said he believes public safety agencies will be looking to provide personnel in the field with effective portable communications devices and personnel locators that will enable supervisors to know where employees are at all times.

There are some agencies "that don't have anything in the way of mobile data communications or backup devices," said Charley Vlcek, vice president of strategic projects at Aether Systems Inc. of Owings Mills, Md.

Lehr said the attacks on New York and Washington demonstrated a need to provide mobile or portable radios to all available public safety personnel in a disaster. This is also important when public safety agencies must establish computer networks to support command, control and logistics during disaster recovery, which may last for weeks or months.

"Computer networks are an element that you don't usually think of for short-term events, but because these events went on for weeks [there is a need] to have computer networks erected on the fly to track supplies and logistics," Lehr said. "It's like a battlefield in terms of supplying equipment."

Police and fire officials will need to ensure they have sophisticated command and control in place for massive rescue and casualty recovery operations, he said.

"There is a thin dividing line between military command and control and civil command and control," said Ed Hogan, vice president in global public sector at Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa.

Among TRW's defense and intelligence systems that might be adapted for civilian use are command and control systems and graphical situational displays that replace paper maps and voice radio communications with digital capabilities, Lehr said.

These kinds of devices will enable civilian counterparts of military commanders to see where their forces are located while disasters are unfolding, and maintain communications with personnel when other lines of communications are disabled or overloaded.

With this capability, police and fire officials would not have to send runners with handwritten notes, as one industry official said occurred during the World Trade Center disaster.

A key element of command and control is the mobile command post. In the urban environment, a mobile command post is typically a large recreational vehicle that has phones, radios and personal computers.

"What the World Trade Center [attack] showed was that one [command post] is not enough when you have a big disaster, so New York City had about a dozen separate emergency mobile commands," Lehr said.

Large cities "want more of these mobile units," he said.

Many government agencies immediately began re-evaluating their disaster recovery plans and reviewing their voice and data infrastructure following Sept. 11, said Bob Fortna, vice president of government solutions at Avaya Inc. of Basking Ridge, N.J., a company that makes communications systems and software that integrate voice and data.

Although there was a lot of emphasis on disaster recovery in preparation for the year 2000, it was given low priority by government once Y2K was over, he said.

Fortna also said the Department of Defense has an evolving specification, known as Multilevel Precedent and Preemption, that allows agencies with higher authority to displace other agencies in an emergency. State and local governments may need to establish similar priorities among their agencies, he said.

"There needs to be priority in the hierarchy of communications," he said.

Unisys' Hogan said the General Services Administration has put out a request for information from vendors for a secure fiber-optic network that would link defense and non-defense agencies. After Sept. 11, this project has been "dusted off and quickly brought to the forefront," he said.

Another initiative that may get a closer look is establishing a national 911 emergency number, Hogan said.

Industry officials said they expect increased emphasis at the state and local level on the adoption of interoperability standards, such as Project 25 and Project 36, which are the standards for two-way radio and computer-aided dispatch communications, respectively.

Funk said he expects increased requirements for various public safety agencies to share data. This will occur among agencies within a given jurisdiction, among nearby jurisdictions and among agencies at various levels of government, he said.

Interestingly, the technology companies that provide public safety products and solutions are reporting a drop in sales in the wake of the disasters. This is partly because many of the agencies have been on high-alert status for weeks and unable to pursue normal procurement activity, and also because agencies are waiting to see what kind of assistance the federal government will provide, said industry officials.

But officials said they expect an upsurge in business once agencies establish a communications blueprint for dealing with 21st-century disasters.

"It struck us right away that this would change how public safety would respond to these events," Lehr said of the attacks.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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