Homeland official: Better communications could have saved lives

The lack of an interoperable communications system for first responders could have led to the deaths of several hundred firefighters trying to save lives Sept. 11, an Office of Homeland Security executive said today at the Homeland Security and National Defense Symposium in Atlantic City, N.J.

Charles Cape, special assistant for wireless technology to the CIO of Homeland Security and special assistant to President Bush, said New York City police officials knew the World Trade Center towers could tumble at any moment, but they could not get the information to 300-plus firefighters in time.

"A lot of interoperability issues arise from job-protection issues, where everyone says we have to have our own radio systems and we don't need to talk to any one else," Cape said.

During those first frantic hours last Sept. 11, Cape said, "Police knew the buildings were going to collapse, but they could not communicate with the firefighters."

Having communications systems that are interoperable helps federal, state and local officials plan operations in a more organized manner and, ultimately, can save lives, agreed Don Eddington, chief of the Center for Information Technology Integration at the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Eddington said local and state authorities weren't the only agencies struggling with jammed phone lines or broken phones in New York. The Defense Department had a tough time getting information to first and second responders as well, he said.

The Defense Department "couldn't talk to state officials, state officials couldn't talk to city officials," Eddington said.

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