According to the Congressman, there is a basic lack of interoperability across more than 80% of the United States' first responders. They are not able to communicate with each other, and are therefore also not able to launch adequate rescue operations, particularly during times of large-scale emergencies.
According to the report, it was found that at least 121 of the 343 fire fighters who died could have been saved had adequate communication systems been in place. For this reason, the Congressman said that grants were needed in order to ensure adequate long-term plans to prevent the large-scale loss of life.
Marsh cites the release of communications data on the day of the attacks in order to substantiate these points. In addition to 12,000 pages of oral testimony from firefighters, the 15 hours of radio transmissions show a state of disorientation and panic among rescue professionals and agencies. Inadequate communication systems meant that rescue workers could not coordinate their efforts efficiently. As a result, both rescue workers and civilians who might have been saved were not. This is the direct result of first responders being unable to communicate with each other. During the time of the report, this was recognized as a critical necessity in search and rescue operations. The lesson learned during 2001 is not one that the United States could afford to have to relearn during another attack.
ii. Rescue professionals unable to communicate
Chandler & Feinberg (2007: 61) emphasize the need of proper communication systems in order to ensure proper rescue operations during crisis situations. They note that all too often the costs involved in adequate interoperability costs lives, as indeed they did during 9/11. The authors cite the strategies used in Anne Arundel County (MD) in order to demonstrate their points. In this large and complex region, it was recognized that an integrated communications network was essential to properly handle complex crises and rescue operations. Furthermore, the county also uses a hierarchical, responsibility-specific communication plan, by means of which each responder involved in the situation will know exactly how to handle responsibility and implement the response.
In addition to these communication paradigms, integrate voice, data, and standards-based video conferencing systems were also implemented. These further clarify the roles of each responder during specific rescue operations. As such, the fire department, department of health, police, and other rescue agencies in the county are fully integrated in terms of communication, and can therefore respond to crises upon the platform of complete interoperability.
The authors also note that new technology is vital in order to ensure continued efficiency and interoperability. Specifically, they note the high-definition video, portable Web cameras, and streaming and archiving solutions can be used to increase such efficiency (Chandler & Feinberg 2007: 62). Clearly, the authors do not regard investments in new communications technology as a waste of money when considered in the life of potentially saved lives as a result of increased interoperability.
b. Hurricane Katrina
The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina can also be used as an example of failed communications and the need to upgrade network systems across the country. According to the New Atlantis (2005), the effects of this natural disaster was made even worse because of human failure and inadequately implemented interoperability.
In addition to professional search teams and their interoperability, the report also emphasizes the need to prepare all citizens for crises situations. In addition to individual preparations, including communication and evacuation plans, government authorities need to be aware of those who cannot care for themselves, and have resources readily available to help such citizens back to their feet. In the New Orleans case, the report notes that, while advance planning was in place, the physical preparation and execution of the plan left something to be desired. These findings then appear to emphasize the need of both citizens and government to be prepared in conjunction.
Official responsibility on the other hand lies within implementing efficient emergency communications systems. Here also, as in 2001, there was a basic breakdown of communications among first responders. Indeed, even though being aware of emergency communication problems, as revealed by a drill in June 2005, officials did nothing to rectify the problem and hence the system broke down when it was needed most. As a result, the report recommends that governments should commit themselves to testing and upgrading communications systems, while also training personnel properly in the use and maintenance of emergency communications.
The report further emphasizes the nature of the problem as national in scale. The responsibility of maintaining communications lies with the federal government as well as local governments.
A significant challenge to the investment in implementation adequate communication systems is proper funding. Communications technology can be expensive, especially if it needs to be upgraded and maintained on a regular basis. Funding is not limitless, particularly when it comes to emergency management. Generally, emergencies such as the one in New Orleans are not foreseen well ahead of time or even shortly before they occur. Hence funding is generally applied to issues of greater or more immediate concern. When emergencies then do occur, systems to handle them adequately are not in place. Hence both the 2001 and 2005 tragedies were inadequately handled because of a lack of communication and infrastructure systems.
The New Atlantis report however also emphasizes the excellence of the broadcast media in keeping citizens informed regarding the impending storm and also regarding the progress of rescue operations once the tragedy occurred. While it is an essential and potentially life-saving service, this aspect of disaster communications was also managed badly during the Katrina tragedy. Inaccurate rumors were reported as fact, and influenced the public view of the disaster very negatively. It impacted both the federal response and the public opinion of such response adversely. The report notes that rescue operations could have been delayed by inaccurate reporting regarding the danger of the area. If adequate communications systems had been in place, reporting would have been more accurate, with responders being more speedy in helping citizens escape the tragedy.
Piper & Ramos (2006) address the issue of communications specifically and directly.
Indeed, they go as far as designating the failure in interoperability and communication a second disaster. The authors note that there were very poor communication and response among federal, regional, state, and local relief agencies after the occurrence of the hurricane. This is at the basis of the many failed systems and rescue efforts immediately following the disaster.
Some of the failed communication systems were not the result of poor communications planning, but rather of the violence of the storm. Aboveground structures such as cell phone towers and radio antennas were completely destroyed by the hurricane, leaving basic communication systems out of order. As a result, most public-safety systems were disabled, with the Police Department in the city being inoperable for at least three days after the hurricane.
Hence there was also no communication with or among emergency response personnel in order to coordinate the rescue effort. The back-up system entailed two radio channels that caused delays in key communications. The failures of back-up systems were in many cases due to poor planning, according to Piper & Ramos. Some were destroyed because they were located on ground floors, while others were out of fuel. Remaining backup systems were overloaded by the high volume of communication attempts. This made it nearly impossible for survivors to contact family members or rescue professionals.
Hurricane Katrina is probably the most significant indication of inadequate communications during and after a disaster. The result is what the authors refer to as "information chaos." Poorly mapped communication channels at local, state, regional, and federal levels is the greatest culprit in much of the misinformation and lack of communication that occurred.
While some cell phone and Internet communications remained, these were not sufficient to cooperate an adequate rescue operation, compounding the already large-scale tragedy. Patrick Stuver (2006) echoes the opinion of many, that the Katrina tragedy at least made government departments aware of the need for communication technology at the federal level. The tragedy was compounded by a basic lack of professional rescue competence. Stuver also notes that 911 emergency communications centers tend to be overwhelmed with calls during a disaster of the Katrina scale. Furthermore, the need for a mass communication system is emphasized. Such a system can facilitate pre-disaster evacuation operations, as well as post-disaster rescue efforts.
Stuver explains that mass notification provides a platform from which to send voice and text messages to large numbers of people at the same time. Such a system would prevent communications failures and potentially save lives.
Stuver also emphasizes the role of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA in implementing adequate communication systems. He notes that, while the management of FEMA by Homeland Security promised to improve coordination among rescue agencies and entities, disasters such as Hurricane Katrina proved that little of this promise materialized. Indeed,…