Friday, March 31, 2006

Safety Communications

A public safety communications plan is on the agenda for the Tuesday City Council meeting. This subject is much more important than it appears at first glance. During Katrina communications failures and interoperability problems cost lives. Similar problems cost lives in the World Trade Center disaster and many natural disasters. (See a CRS report on public safety communications here.)

One thing I have noticed in looking a past disasters is that emergency communications must be capable of handling the full communications load. During most emergencies telephone networks and cell phone systems quickly become saturated to the point of being unusable. Cell towers, phone and power lines often get damaged or destroyed. An effective public safety communications system must be capable of operating with little or no outside help.

In the event of an emergency, the communications system needs to be able to interoperate with the equipment that help brings with them. This is currently a major problem. Work has been done and the DHS has released a Statement of Requirements for interoperability that will be a part of any plan, but that is just the beginning. The whole field of public safety and emergency communications is changing rapidly. It is no longer limited to the old style mobile radios we remember from the 50's TV programs. There are mobile data terminals which are basically portable computers in vehicles. There are trunking systems that allow automatic switching to empty channels or automatically sharing channels for a specific action. Digital technology is supplementing and sometimes replacing the old analog stuff. Acronyms and terms like WiMax, mesh networks, VOIP, are being added every day, and they affect all types of communications. New Orleans, for example, is currently using a wireless mesh network to provide a communications system that includes public safety, internet, and other communications. Originally developed to help with crime fighting (case study), this system survived Katrina and is now one of the back bones of rebuilding the downtown area (see this article.) An interesting part of this is the muliple uses beyond public safety this is being used for. Technologies such as this need to be looked at and integrated into the master plan.

The agenda item is really just the start of the planning for this system. I am starting this discussion here so that we can intelligently evaluate the plan and make the best decision for the future of San Angelo and our neighbors.

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