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9/11 anniversary prompts emergency communications examination

FirstNet, warning systems focus of House subcommittee update

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A recent House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing with local officials focused on two fronts: internal communications within and among agencies and, externally (i.e., public alerting).

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS

It’s no secret to observers of Congress that interest in how first responders communicate has been a mainstay since the September 11 terrorist attacks. As the 20th anniversary of that fateful day came and went, one committee formed in its wake held its fourth in a series of hearings, focused on a key gap identified at Ground Zero: interagency communications.

Past 911 comms hearings

Over the years, committees have held hearings on emergency warning systems, including a House Energy & Commerce review of the future of emergency alerting in April 2017, a Senate Commerce examination in January 2018, Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee the following month on reliable alerts, and another in Senate Commerce after a false statewide alert terrified Hawaii residents.

The Communications & Technology Subcommittee held a legislative hearing timed in September 2018 with the introduction of 911-related bills to explicitly direct funding to dispatch operations, direct creation of a national short code for mobile phone callers, and stop “swatting” (i.e., bogus 911 calls that risk public safety by diverting resources to phony situations).

One 911 center director explained at that hearing that his center typically receives many mobile calls reporting a single incident and that about 85% of total calls came from such devices, which comports with general statistics nationally. So it is that accepting information from the public is becoming as complicated as sharing information with first responders – and back to the public.

FirstNet – praised as it’s used

“Communications and interoperability are essential; first responders consider it their lifeline,” Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) said at the outset of last week’s House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing with local officials focused on two fronts: internal communications within and among agencies and, externally (i.e., public alerting). Enter FirstNet.

Created by a 2012 law, FirstNet was Congress’ response to a 9/11 Commission recommendation that more radio spectrum be set aside for public safety. AT&T was given a 25-year contract by FirstNet and 20-MHz spectrum in March 2017; however, enrollment outside AT&T’s network and integrating features like “mission-critical push-to-talk” have proved troublesome, according to a 2018 Congressional Research Service issue paper.

FirstNet connectivity can be a valuable asset when consumer networks are brought down by natural disaster or capacity, such as localized special events. Washington, D.C., DHS Director Chris Rodriguez told Demings’ subcommittee that the District had FirstNet-enabled a “rapidly deployable cellular infrastructure” in place at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, which he said helped many agencies involved, though notably, the Capitol Police was not then on FirstNet.

Captain Mel Maier with the Oakland County (Michigan) Sheriff’s Office said that, as a planner and incident commander, seeing network outages or impairments is proving valuable when situations require resilience for multiple agencies to communicate. “We’re identifying the weak parts, we’re ensuring the diversity of the pathways,” he said. “I’m very proud of what’s going on with it and it’s a very, very useful tool for public safety.”

Maier said FirstNet’s success “ultimately depends on continued investment in the development of reliable coverage and capacity” across jurisdictions. “Current IPAWS [Integrated Public Alert & Warning System] systems do not work on older cellular devices and may fail to reach the targeted public,” he testified.

Cybersecurity also now complicates the tech landscape for public safety agencies. SAFECOM, an effort by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency at encouraging secure interoperability, found that one-third of respondent organizations had been impacted by cyber incidents, and well over half of the fire departments had no cybersecurity plans, typically due to a lack of funding.

Seattle Deputy Fire Chief Chris Lombard and Maier each pointed to grants, including those through the State Homeland Security Program (SHSP) and Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), as crucial to incentivizing coordination between agencies. These programs, SAFECOM and FirstNet, “may be the biggest single success” of the federal government in this area, he told subcommittee members. See SAFECOM updates here.

Public warnings are best delivered diversified

Putnam County, Florida, Sheriff Gator DeLoach shared that his agency relies “heavily on social media,” an early warning system, and reverse 911 to get ahead of incoming hurricanes that he anticipates will knock out power and local comms infrastructure.

Further, just this month, Austin became the third jurisdiction in Texas to deploy a Accessible Hazard Alert System for translating emergency alerts into voice, sign language, Braille, and text developed by Deaf Link for deaf and blind residents. While this presents yet another frontier in the evolution of warning technology, it also signals an important nod to protecting particularly vulnerable citizens.

FEMA-run IPAWS has sought to open pathways among agencies, messaging systems, broadcasters and content channels, and end-use devices like TV, radio and mobile devices. The first nationwide test in August yielded inconsistent results among broadcasters, though the Government Accountability Office put the onus on agencies to follow industry developments, as outlined in a February 2020 report.

Rodriguez reported that the Wireless Emergency Alert is “not without its limitations,” citing “geofencing” (too broad a geographic reach) and opt-out risks from perceived overuse (namely, warning fatigue). The risk to citizens not heeding warnings is, naturally, needing rescue in turn.

One Hawaii news organization itself now warns the public of emergency alert systems and statewide IPAWS warning tests. Asked about DC’s approach by Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) about preventing another such mishap, Rodriguez said his DHS uses a “layered process for ensuring that once the send is hit on the WEA, that that has been looked at by several individuals and vetted before it’s put out to the public.”

Third parties helping to improve comms

As to group communications, third parties are joining the discussion. Zello transforms mobile phones into walkie-talkies with even a minimal network connection. Rescuers in Texas relied on Zello to find flood victims stranded by Hurricane Harvey and became a communications hub for the “Cajun Navy” at that time. Note: The Zello messaging system may not need a number but it does require an internet connection.

As to pre-arrival fireground surveillance, 911eye is an application popular with law enforcement and growing among public safety answer points (PSAPs). The application allows a dispatch center to send a secure link by SMS to a mobile caller to send back pictures, video and live video, which can then be pushed to first responders.

And as to incident management, TVU Networks is an IP platform used to distribute video over the internet within and among video broadcasters. Just this month, the tech company announced that its TVU One mobile transmitter, MLink transmitter and Nano router internet access point are FirstNet-ready.

More tools, more paths, more data

Dispatch, reconnaissance and mass communications in the 21st century are becoming clearer and yet ever more sophisticated.

Michael Kirby has worked since 2008 for a credentialed news bureau on Capitol Hill that provides digital video and information services to news organizations across the web. Kirby graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2007 with a BA in philosophy, minoring in history. He is interested in many legislative topics, and always has an eye on public safety-related news because he grew up around the firehouse.