By Arshad Mohammed and Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writers
September 23, 2005
With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas coast, Federal
Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin said yesterday that
the nation's emergency first responders need a mobile, wireless system
that allows them to talk to one another in times of crisis anywhere in
The lack of such a system slowed recovery efforts after Hurricane
Katrina. Police, fire and rescue personnel struggled to work together
after electric power failed and the telecommunications network in
Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama was extensively damaged.
Yesterday Martin called for developing more rugged first responder
networks and making greater use of satellite technology that does not
depend on vulnerable ground infrastructure. "When radio towers are
knocked down, satellite communications may be the most effective means
of communicating," Martin said at a hearing of the Senate Commerce
Committee. "If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that
we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications."
Telecommunications companies yesterday positioned mobile equipment to
be ready for the new storm.
Bethesda-based satellite company Iridium Satellite LLC worked to get
8,000 to 10,000 of its phones delivered after Katrina hit, but this
time, the company called FedEx Corp. in advance to distribute phones
to areas near Rita's projected path, said Greg Ewert, an executive
Ewert said that it was difficult to get as many phones to Texas
because some are still being used in the New Orleans area and that he
hopes many will travel with the emergency workforce into Texas. "It's
definitely putting pressure on us," he said. "If it's just as bad as
Katrina and it hits Houston, then we'll be strained to get the same
amount of phones out there."
Calls by military and emergency workers caused satellite phone traffic
to spike to 3,000 percent of usual levels after Katrina, Ewert said.
To get more airwave frequency to accommodate that volume, Iridium had
to get approval from the FCC and other similar agencies around the
Cingular Wireless LLC also rushed to prepare yesterday, stationing
30,000 gallons of gas, 16 temporary cell towers, more than 200
generators and about 120 technicians on standby to wait for Rita. In
less than a month, Cingular has had to move such equipment from New
Orleans and the Gulf Coast area where Hurricane Katrina hit, to North
Carolina where Hurricane Ophelia was projected to hit, and now to
The fact that such piecemeal solutions are still required four years
after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made emergency
communications a national priority has drawn criticism.
"How many times do things like this need to happen before we . . .
recognize that we need to make hard decisions, to give public safety
the resources they need to do the job?" said Robert LeGrande, deputy
chief technology officer for the District.
Hurricane Katrina has revived calls in Congress to set a date for
police, firedepartments and emergency medical services radio
frequencies set aside for them nearly a decade ago but still used by
television broadcasters. The 9/11 Commission Report, which documented
in painful detail the inability of police and firefighters to
communicate with one another as they tried to save people in the World
Trade Center, cited freeing those frequencies as one of its key
Martin said yesterday that first responders need "smart radios" that
can hop between available networks and also urged the creation of a
more sophisticated national alert system to warn people of disasters,
using the Internet and other newer technologies.
Public safety experts said it could take years to create a truly
seamless communications network for police, fire and rescue workers.
Many factors are to blame, they said, including the difficulty of
getting various public-safety groups to work together at the local
level and the huge cost of replacing existing equipment.
Most police, fire and emergency medical departments buy their own
systems independently and often dislike giving up control of them.
Gerald R. Faulhaber, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and
former FCC chief economist, described "the politics of control" at the
local level as one of the greatest obstacles.
"The police chiefs fight tooth and nail to maintain control over their
radios and their channels. The fire chiefs fight tooth and nail to
maintain control over their radios," he said. "Who is going to take on
the police chief? Who is going to take on the fire chief?"
David Aylward, the director of ComCARE, a nonprofit group that seeks
to improve first-responder communications, said that while long-term
issues are discussed, more could be done to make better use of
"What isn't years away is connecting agencies together and backing it
up with redundant satellite and satellite links. That could be done in
six months, and it's a travesty that it wasn't done and that it isn't
done," he said.
=A9 2005 The Washington Post Company
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