US Senate examines impact of sooner DTV transition on hurricane first responders

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US Senate examines impact of sooner DTV transition on hurricane first responders

Washington, DC – With the assessment of responsibility and, in some cases, culpability for the management vacuum in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita now in high gear, it might seem logical that Sen. John McCain’s (R – Arizona) goal of expediting the shift of VHF television broadcast spectrum to federal, state, and community public safety officials would be expedited.

Senators have resumed discussing the issue of the digital TV transition date in advance of key votes next week on amendments to the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, which would mandate that US broadcasters release their VHF spectrum back to the Federal Communications Commission no later than 31 December 2008. The turnover is part of a planned transition of broadcast television to fully digital transmission bands, some of which are already in use.

But a daunting alternative is presenting itself: Some are arguing, with good reason, that a full-fledged technological upgrade would not have prevented the complete and early dissolution of communications in New Orleans, Biloxi, and other areas where federal and even state help arrived too late, or not at all. If upgrading the technology for first responders isn’t the fix-all solution to the problem of achieving interoperability between federal, state, and local authorities and agencies, then the key impetus driving the DTV transition date goes away.

Unless someone can invent another impetus, which is what Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R – Alaska) may have tried to do in hearings Thursday on the subject of interoperability. Sen. Stevens suggested that the current budget mandates that his committee raise $4.8 billion to maintain current fiscal 2006 budget targets. If the Committee fails to meet that target, no moneys would be available for funding interoperability programs in successive years. The turnover of VHF spectrum to the FCC could (through some means unspecified) raise the necessary amount. However, a Congressional Budget Office report cited by Stevens said that the amount raised by the turnover could increase if the turnover date were postponed, perhaps another year. In the meantime, national security interests on the other side of the argument would like the turnover date to be moved ahead, perhaps within 2007.

Panelists appearing before the Commerce Committee on Thursday included representatives of federal public safety agencies, plus with communications chief of the Shreveport, Louisiana, fire department. Dr. David G. Boyd, deputy director of the SAFECOM project established in 2001 within the Dept. of Homeland Security, told the Committee that communications systems may have failed during the Katrina crisis, but too much of their support systems had already failed to have made that the key problem.

“Interoperability requires, before all else, simple operability,” said Dr. Boyd in his opening remarks. “As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, in the absence of a reliable network across which responders within an agency can effectively communicate, interoperability is both irrelevant and impossible. Some seem to believe the introduction of new technologies alone can solve our interoperability problems. But adding equipment addresses only part of what a fully robust, reliable, and interoperable public safety communications system requires.”

When communications towers go down, testified Dr. Boyd, only portable transmission units work for first responders. Those units only work for as long as their batteries are charged, and recharging them requires power — which, during the Katrina crisis, was lost early. Public emergency services such as 911 rely on the phone network and cellular communications — the former of which is bound to cables which were downed by the storm, the latter upon towers which were toppled. Satellite phones might offer an interesting solution, if it weren’t the case that a phone transmitter has to reach an orbital satellite through a line of vision that hopefully isn’t obstructed by a category-five-sized cloud. Satellite phones also consume power, which comes from batteries (see: recharging). Add to that the problem that the transmitter would be difficult to aim in the middle of a flood (see: electrocution).

Along with a representative of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Dr. Boyd introduced an interoperability initiative called simply “P25.” The project, which commenced well before the Katrina crisis, has identified six areas of potential improvement in order to achieve interoperability: governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercises, routine use of interoperable systems, and most importantly, high degree of leadership, planning, and collaboration with a commitment in investment in sustainability. P25 projected a timeframe in which those six elements could be sufficiently addressed such that interoperability between all public safety agencies could be considered automatic. The year projected for that lofty goal was 2023.

This date astounded Sen. Barbara Boxer (D – California), who asked Dr. Boyd if there were anything his department could do to project that date forward, before, say, everyone currently serving in Congress has retired. Boyd responded by saying that 2023 was not the earliest possible date, that it was simply the date chosen as a good future target, that was agreeable to all the public service agencies with which SAFECOM has already met.

Hearings scheduled for Thursday afternoon were postponed for the swearing-in ceremony of John Roberts as Chief Justice of the United States. They are expected to resume sometime next week, during which, representatives of technology providers, including Motorola, will be called upon to explain why upgrades to radio equipment can solve the interoperability problem, even if they don’t solve Sen. Stevens’ budgetary dilemma.