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Network World - Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks demonstrated huge gaps in the nation's emergency communications systems, there is still a long list of standard networking capabilities that are unavailable to first responders and 9-1-1 operators.
Police officers, firefighters and EMTs from different jurisdictions don't have a standard, interoperable radio network for communicating with each other. Most 9-1-1 call centers don't automatically failover to backup locations in the case of physical disaster or excess call volumes. And emergency personnel can't do what every smartphone user can do: send and receive text messages, pictures or video.
"The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency response communications has not kept pace with commercial innovation -- has not kept pace with what ordinary people do every day with communications devices," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an August address to first responders.
Here's a list of 10 emergency communications capabilities that the United States lacks:
1. We don't have a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety.
Many metro areas, including New York City and Washington, D.C., have upgraded their antiquated two-way radio systems since 9/11, but first responders still don't have a standard, nationwide wireless system. For example, when New York City police traveled to Louisiana in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, their radios wouldn't work.
The biggest holdup to building a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety is a lack of funding. The Obama administration estimates the cost of this wireless network at $10.7 billion; it has proposed raising the money by auctioning frequencies no longer used by television broadcasters.
"Every day of delay risks compromising the vital goal of interoperability, the core of the 9/11 Commission's recommendation," Genachowski said.
2. Most 9-1-1 call centers don't have automatic failover to other locations.
The nation's 9-1-1 system is 43 years old, it's based on analog technology, and it lacks the redundancy of modern private networks running the Internet Protocol (IP). One key missing capability is dynamic rerouting of calls from one 9-1-1 call center to others outside the area.
Most 9-1-1 centers -- called Public Safety Access Points (PSAPs) -- can choose one other PSAP as backup. But having only one backup system with a fixed geographic location isn't enough in a major disaster. Hurricane Katrina, for example, crippled 38 separate 9-1-1 call centers in the New Orleans area, resulting in thousands of emergency calls that went unanswered at abandoned locations.
"Having a fixed geographic location for your backup systems is no longer an issue when you go to an IP backbone," says John Chiaramonte, lead associate with consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. "The ability to dynamically reroute calls to better handle those calls by limited resources is one of the main features of next-gen 9-1-1."