Better Public Safety Communications System Is a Matter of Life and Death

Published April 1, 2008

A vivid example of the continuing need for communications interoperability among public safety organizations occurred on September 11, 2001, after the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed and police and fire offices in the North Tower were still trying to evacuate people.

Police officers inside the building and on the ground heard those warnings and proceeded to evacuate, but because the firefighters’ radios were not compatible with those of the police, firefighters inside the endangered tower could not hear the message, and 121 died when it collapsed 21 minutes after the first warning was issued over police radios.

As we saw on 9/11, the lack of public safety communications interoperability has serious consequences. Current public safety spectrum policy under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) creates about 50,000 independent licensees.

Structuring Systems

Putting technical constraints aside, the structure of an ideal commercial, shared-use public safety communications system would be much like today’s wireless telephone network, with multiple competing national carriers that all interconnect. One way to achieve this would be to auction two or more spectrum licenses subject to certain public safety obligations, including interconnection and prioritization.

This could be done either by a gradual process in which the federal government reclaims public safety spectrum as agencies transition to commercial services, or by allowing agencies themselves to lease or sell their licenses in secondary markets.

Creating two or more licenses would avoid the establishment of a strong incumbent monopolist. Auctioning the licenses would avoid rent-seeking and could also potentially raise funds for public safety to use during a transition.

National Scope

An ideal public safety communications network would also be national in scope. This would help establish interoperability between federal, state, and local agencies. As mobile radio expert Gregg Miller pointed out, while a firefighter from California can jump behind the wheel of a fire truck in Louisiana and drive it with no new instruction, the same cannot be said about public safety radio systems.

If achieving interoperability is the ultimate goal, then requiring interconnection among competing carriers is crucial. It is conceivable shared-use networks would voluntarily interconnect, if only because commercial users of the network might demand the benefits of increased network effects. However, because interoperability should be the prime objective of a new policy, interconnection should be required between all licensees.

Traffic Prioritization Key

Another key requirement for competitive public safety licenses should be prioritization–giving public safety users priority over commercial users in shared networks. A public safety user would not preempt a private call unless every other channel on the network was being used–a rare situation.

Our existing public, switched telephone network has prioritization and preemption built in. The Department of Homeland Security runs the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, which, in case of emergency, gives priority to certain federal, state, local, tribal government, industry, and non-governmental organization telephone calls.

The wireless companion of this program, the Wireless Priority Service, applies to cellular networks. These programs are used only when the network becomes unforeseeably congested, such as during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 attacks, and the Northeast blackout of 2003. Other times of heavy public service use–such as the 2000 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City–are predictable and can be planned for.

New Policy Needed

FCC’s current spectrum allocation policy stands in the way of the goal of a national, interoperable, public safety communications network with economies of scale and standardization. Public safety agencies should be made to face the true cost of the spectrum they use, either by allowing them to sell or lease their spectrum, or through a gradual process of reclamation by the federal government.

Also, spectrum should be allocated for commercial provision of public safety communications. Licensees would be required to interconnect, and first responders would have priority on shared networks. Establishment of at least two competing licensees would help prevent the emergence of a monopoly provider.

After 12 years of experience, RACOM Wireless, a small company in Marshalltown, Iowa, shows us first responders and commercial parties can share such a network, increasing economies of scale and spectral efficiency and providing another financial incentive for entrepreneurs to offer such a network.

Entrepreneurial firms such as RACOM have shown us the way to interoperability–we only need to change policy to achieve it.

Jerry Brito ([email protected]) is senior research fellow in the Regulatory Studies Program of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This article is excerpted from “Sending Out an S.O.S.: Public Safety Communications Interoperability as a Collective Action Problem,” The Federal Communications Law Journal, vol.59, and is used with permission.

For more information …

Jerry Brito, “Sending Out an S.O.S.: Public Safety Communications Interoperability as a Collective Action Problem,” The Federal Communications Law Journal: