The New York Times just dedicated its editorial page to the notion that the United States is long since overdue for a public emergency response network; one that would allow firefighters, police, EMTs and other relief workers to rapidly coordinate their responses to natural disasters.
The 911 Commission emphatically recommended the creation of such an agency in its post-disaster report: Many responders heroically but needlessly perished as the second tower came down because communication channels were clogged from overuse. Police and firefighters couldn’t coordinate efforts, and EMTs were left out of the loop as a result. The stunted flow of information resulted in devastating cacophony.
The solution? Forge a body designed specifically to provide a channel for such coordination, ideally over wireless broadband. So sayeth the Times:
As the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania draws near, one of the main recommendations of the 9/11 Commission remains unfulfilled: the creation of a common communications system that lets emergency responders talk to one another across jurisdictions … Congress should be haunted by the threat of new disasters finding rescue workers still incommunicado. Responsible lawmakers can mark the 10th anniversary by passing legislation to finally create a national public safety communications network.
The overall challenge is more complex than it sounds, touching on questions of financing, broadcast spectrum fights, technology innovation and turf battles among local public safety agencies. Congress can begin cutting through a lot of that by approving the reallocation of radio spectrum to wireless broadband providers and public safety agencies. This would allow creation of a modern emergency system providing common access when needed by voice, video and text for responders now using separate voice systems typically jammed up in emergencies.
And who listens to the radio anymore anyways — would anyone really protest giving up a little adult contemporary airtime during times of crucial disaster? Seriously, though, such a network is most certainly within our reach, and would have the benefit of spurring the development of broadband infrastructure on a large scale. This is something Obama has discussed at length but never found a viable vessel to move it with — expanding and upgrading national broadband to give Americans access to better and faster internet.
Maybe the creation of a public safety network could help move the needle on that front — from Katrina to floods in Nashville to the more recent wildfires in Texas and flooding along the Mississippi, we’re seeing disaster after disaster hit the nation (and climate change is only going to exacerbate the scale and frequency of such extreme weather events). A public safety network that runs on high speed broadband should be seen as a priority — and it has the benefit of potentially bringing innovation in the sector in its wake. Finally, this is one of those few ideas that should be considered super-bipartisan — who wants to stand in the way of building a network that could potentially save thousands of lives?
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