9/11 First Responder Lessons Learned, But Still Room for Improvement

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The communications breakdowns during the attacks on September 11 can be broken down into three categories.

First, 911 operators had no sense of what was happening on scene. The people stranded in the twin towers calling 911 could not get any situational awareness from the operators. 

Second, the radios used by firefighters had trouble transmitting and receiving messages in the high-rise environment.

Third, interoperability. In other words, Fire Department chiefs trying to direct the response at the World Trade Center had no contact with  NYPD helicopters which had a more complete grasp of the scope of the fires.

This week, the City Council got an update from Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway on how much progress the city has made in resolving these three issues.

Holloway said bugs in the 911 software had been worked out. Starting in November, the Fire and Police 911 dispatchers will be integrated into the same work space, which is expected to improve their coordination . 

The council also learned that the Bloomberg administration is pushing ahead with a scaled down version of a back up 911 call center in the Bronx. The hope is that, once completed, the 911 system will be more resilient.

But even so, the council was told there could still be instances of busy signals on 911 calls during a major event, such as last year’s December blizzard when call volume spiked to 49,000 from an average daily 30,000 calls.

As for radios in a high rise environment, Council Tech Committee Chair Elizabeth Crowley was told that the FDNY had turned a corner.

Officials testified a robust portable post radio system was in wide use and had  significantly improved the ability of FDNY chiefs to communicate with fire fighters in high-rises.

But former Deputy FDNY Chief Vincent Dunn, an expert on high rise fire fighting, said firefighter radios still don't perform reliably in skyscrapers because of interference from the steel and concrete.

Dunn thinks the best strategy is to have the buildings wired with repeaters that boost the radio signal. This has been done at Number 7 World Trade and the Bank of America building at Bryant Park.

A spokesman for the Durst organization said the company outfitted the 51-story Bank of America building with repeaters at a cost of about $2 million, or a dollar a square foot, on a building that cost $2 billion to build.

Dunn argues it's well worth the investment for firefighter and public safety. "Wall-to-wall carpeting cost more than a dollar a square foot. So which is more important, the ability to save the lives of people    and the firefighters in the building  and to put out a fire or to have the wall-to-wall carpeting?" Dunn asked.
John Jay Fire Science Professor Glenn Corbett agrees, but notes that  "right now that's not mandatory for new skyscrapers. It's only optional." Corbett said he would like to see the repeaters required for existing high rises as well.

On the interoperability front, Holloway told the City Council substantial progress had been made in integrating how police and fire handle major incidents.

According to Holloway, the departments are moving from a competitive model to a collaborative one. Deputy Mayor Holloway said instead of police and fire calling their own shots, the city is moving to a unified response.
"Having the unified command, you are able to get  an overall view of what is happening at an incident response," Holloway told the Council.

The city has also invested in technology upgrades so that police and fire brass can easily establish communications which each other. 

A City Council briefing paper done in advance of the hearing documented other improvements.

Council investigators found that advances in Wi-Fi were clearly demonstrated in 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the Hudson. The City's NYCWin Network permitted the integration of TV news video feeds, traffic cameras and its own video units providing on scene commanders with complete situational awareness.

But Wi-Fi has limits. Breakthroughs, like having a photo of a suspect sent to a patrol unit or floor plans for a building sent to a fire company, have yet to be made.

NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Dowd told the Council that getting more data to the field would happen once a dedicated national wireless network for first responders is established, as called for in a bill introduced by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Gillibrand's bill is currently part of President Obama's jobs bill.

Earlier this week, Gillibrand told WNYC she was confident that the bill had enough bipartisan support. She said not only was the bill self-funding, but would generate $6.5 billion in additional revenue through an auction of spectrum that could go towards paying down the deficit.

Gillibrand said a decade after September 11 it’s time for the federal government to take the steps necessary to bring emergency communications into the 21st century.

"What's really most outrageous is that a kid with a smart phone has more technological capability to get information than our current first responders with their current equipment," Gillibrand said.