Communicating Through a Crisis

Phones went dead all over New York as the towers fell. Emergency networks are already far more robust and will only get better

Anyone who was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, remembers the numb shock, the confusion, the long walk home -- and how their phones let them down. With networks overloaded, most cell calls went nowhere. But that was nothing compared with the disruptions endured by emergency personnel at Ground Zero. When firefighters rushed into the towers, they discovered that interference from the buildings' walls prevented them from communicating with the outside. Worse, agencies using different radio frequencies soon found they couldn't even communicate with each another.

Changing all that has been a top priority. The Homeland Security Dept. budgeted $500 million in 2004 just for assessing infrastructure, including telecommunications systems' vulnerabilities and how to remedy them. All told, the department has allocated $8 billion to make sure the different communications networks used by various agencies can work in harmony.

That goal was put to the test in mid-May during a nationwide drill in which more than 40 agencies simulated the emergency closure of operations centers, set up shop in alternate locations, and coordinated efforts to demonstrate that their communication systems had both the capacity and flexibility to rise to the likely challenges of a genuine disaster.


  While the results of that exercise haven't been released, experts don't doubt that room for improvement remains. "We are more secure today than yesterday, and we will be more secure tomorrow than today," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the 9/11 Commission on May 19. He said he's readying the launch of a special agency, the Office of Interoperability & Compatibility, which will focus on making the different communications systems work seamlessly. And Ridge promised that, by the summer's end, his department will have put together a network allowing various agencies to exchange information in real time.

Since 2001, the government's telecom wish list has grown only longer. One reason is that telecom technology has continued to evolve, often creating new problems. Take voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which allows users to make calls over the Web. VoIP requires not only new kinds of surveillance equipment but also the cooperation of Internet service providers, which complicates matters.

More important, VoIP allows users to have, say, a New York number while actually living just about anywhere. Problem is, when those far-flung "212" callers dial 911, they could be directed to a New York dispatcher, who often can't transfer requests to a center in the callers' home states, says Mark Lewis, senior consulting engineer at telecom gearmaker Nortel Networks (NT ).


  Telecom networks are also becoming more complex as the technology is adapted for a slew of new applications. Take networks of biosensors, which sniff for biological agents in the air and pass that information along like hockey players with a puck. If the first sensor in a security network catches a whiff of danger, it alerts the others in turn, which test for the same threat -- poison gas in a subway system, for example -- while simultaneously relaying the original alert and updates to authorities.

And now that identity-verification is such a priority, telecom networks also have to be able to transmit high-quality video. Bell Labs, a research and development arm of Lucent Technologies (LU ), has come up with a laser technology that can beam high-definition images -- such as video of a person at an airport checkpoint -- over distances of more than 600 miles, says Mike Geller, vice-president of Bell Labs' Government Communications Laboratory. Bell Labs is planning a demonstration in 18 months, and Geller hopes the system will be ready for deployment within two years.

Startup Pacific Microwave Research in Vista, Calif., has developed a technology that can beam high-quality streaming video from the scene of an emergency to a command center up to 15 blocks away. The system connects to cameras embedded in first responders' helmets, then uses complex software to overcome interference from buildings, says Chris Durso, PMR's president. Much of the research funding going into emergency communications emphasizes ensuring that different radio systems can talk to each another.

To that end, special network switches from Raytheon JPS Communications, a division of defense giant Raytheon (RTN ), can be deployed at the scene to connect users of different radio systems, says Roman Kaluta, the company's manager of public-safety communications interoperability.


  And in June, 2004, the tyranny of distance will be further tamed when JPS releases a switch aimed at allowing officials in one county to call counterparts in another via short-range walkie talkies, whose signals would be transmitted part of the way by the same Internet-based network that has proven so troublesome when the need has been to identify the origin of 911 calls. Ironically, the feature that today vexes emergency operators also makes the network perfect for this application, since it allows for remote control of switches, Kaluta says.

Bell Labs has developed another solution to the communications problem. Its so-called Blast communications technology lets agencies create mobile wireless networks that can be quickly deployed at the scene of an emergency, says Geller. Such gear can transmit calls and photos between similarly equipped emergency-response vehicles. Position enough Blast-equipped units at and around the scene of a disaster, and an independent communications network comes almost instantly into existence.

Even allowing for the promise of so many new technologies, it will take several more years to resolve the more complex communication problems revealed by September 11. Chris Holloway, a researcher at the federal standards development agency, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, is trying to model how the shape, size, and construction of buildings can affect wireless signals' quality. He has been installing wireless transmitters in buildings slated for demolition, such as Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, which came down in March, and then measuring the signals they emit. Holloway is hoping his research could lead to changes in building codes, even how cell phones are designed.

Telecom systems can clearly be improved much more. And with federal funds flowing steadily, the chances are increasing that many of the problems revealed in 2001 should be history within a few years.

By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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