To bolster the value of wireless voice and data communications for U.S. homeland security purposes, industry and government officials need to work closer together, security experts at CTIA Wireless 2005 said this week.
The consensus among five experts who took part in a panel discussion was that wireless technologies have improved since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But they said much remains to be done to set up effective warning systems in the event of a terrorist or natural disaster and to improve interoperability of wireless devices for emergency responders.
The toughest issue for police, firefighters and other emergency responders may be the widespread lack of interoperability between public safety networks and devices, experts said.
“It’s going to take time to solve that problem, and it’s unfortunate,” said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, assistant vice president for regulatory policy and homeland security at the CTIA in Washington. He moderated the panel of U.S. Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials on Tuesday.
As an example of such disparities, the Tennessee Valley Authority now has 38 different wireless networks, although it plans to collapse that number to 19 by using a Nextel network to replace 20 of them, said a conference attendee from the TVA who asked not to be named.
The situation is distressing for police and fire units responding to a disaster, as some personnel must carry several radios or yell through bullhorns, said Jim Dailey, director of the office of homeland security for the FCC. Different jurisdictions in the same metropolitan area have over the years adopted various wireless networks, some of them proprietary, as a way to retain control, panelists said. The problem has been around since the beginning of wireless services, and is partly political as well as technological, Dailey said.
Metropolitan regions might benefit from the development of Wi-Fi mesh hot zones to transmit information, said Ron Sege, president of Tropos Networks, which provides outdoor Wi-Fi routers in more than 125 cities nationwide.
The problem with using Wi-Fi for emergencies is that the networks operate in a radio spectrum that is unlicensed, making them vulnerable to interference, Guttman-McCabe said, although work-arounds could be developed to prevent such problems, he said.
The wireless industry responded quickly to a call for Wireless Priority Service (WPS) after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when President Bush urged private vendors to voluntarily create the service, said John Graves, program director for WPS in the National Communications System, a branch of the DHS. T-Mobile USA Inc. set up WPS service in May 2002, and Cingular Wireless LLC and Nextel Communications have since followed suit, he said.
WPS gives an emergency responder using a wireless device and a special code priority over other wireless calls on a network, Guttman-McCabe said.
Several panelists called for development of emergency warning systems to notify a large group of people of an emergency, similar to one county officials use in Arlington, Va. That system is used by police and fire officials to call residents over wired or wireless phones, or the Internet, to warn them of traffic disasters or crimes.
Panelists bemoaned a problem where individuals who use E911 to report an emergency sometimes encounter a voice recording and a long delay. They didn’t say how often the problem occurs, but they said the problem is dire. “We have a long way to go for wireless E911 to be implemented,” said Gregory Rohde, executive director of the E911 Institute in Washington. Citing an incident in Austin where a girl called for help — only to reach a recording — Rohde said, “the industry can’t stand that.”
Part of the problem is the provisioning of effective Public Safety Access Points that receive the wireless E911 calls, experts said. Federal grants need to be used to make sure such access points are set up more widely in the U.S., Rohde said.
Ed Thomas, an FCC engineering chief, said he got a recording when he personally tried to call 911 from his wireless phone after a person collapsed at his church in West Palm Beach, Fla. After trying unsuccessfully again, he finally reached police by calling a local number.
Graves said that overall, Americans are better off now than they were four years ago regarding the use of wireless systems for emergency responses, but added that a broad-based wireless service to notify people of emergencies is probably less practical than using radio and TV broadcasts.
“Phones don’t lend themselves to this kind of notification,” Graves said.