Council Surveys 1st Responder Communications Decade After 9/11
Councilmembers Peter Vallone Jr. (D–Astoria) and Elizabeth Crowley (D–Glendale) held a third meeting of their committees and heard from the city’s highest officials in a search for solutions to problems that continue to elude our police and fire departments.
Vallone, chairman of the Public Safety Committee stated at the City Hall meeting:
“Our city has made significant progress in first responder communication since Sept. 11, 2001. We are much safer and have clear goals for future improvement. However, new challenges continue to surface and older problems, ranging from communication in subway tunnels to the lack of a backup 911 center still exist.”
Crowley, who heads the Fire, Safety and Criminal Justice Services and Technology Committees, stated:
“Our city–particularly our subway system, tunnels and landmarked high risers remain top targets for terrorists. The mayor’s administration needs to make sure that our emergency responders are able to effectively communicate in these high risk target areas. Today’s hearing showed that the administration still has work to do in these areas where radio system failure causes problems in communication.”
Crowley addressed two specific communications related concerns that seemed to present major operational gaps:
•Communications technology in subway tunnels and other problem areas both lacked sufficient radio coverage for NYPD and FDNY responders to efficiently relay messages to remote command centers. She said that according to Deputy Mayor for Operations Caswell Holloway, who testified, there are reported dead spots within the subway system that occasionally cause disturbances in communication.
Crowley pointed out that the NYPD has yet to officially update from Very- High Frequency radios to Ultra-High Frequency radios. While the FDNY made the switch to UHF radios in 2009, police officers still operate on a different frequency, causing discrepancy in communications.
Vallone cited concerns from members of both the NYPD and FDNY, who said on some occasions commanding officers of the respective agencies continued to use separate command centers and do not communicate within the incident command structure. As evidence, Vallone said, FDNY members said that NYPD commanding officers continue to call fire dispatchers for updates and information from emergencies instead of collecting direct information from command centers.
Crowley also expressed concerns about reports from 2006 that show difficulties in communicating between high-rise buildings and remote command centers. Despite a great deal of technological progress in the past 10 years, she said, the FDNY still faces significant barriers establishing a line of communication between firefighters and command centers in buildings higher than 75 feet.
Crowley concluded that she and Deputy Mayor Holloway must meet with the appropriate leaders to analyze data and discuss the possibility of installing more solid radio infrastructure systems within buildings throughout the city.
Vallone noted that the following areas need improvement:
•The New York City Wireless Information Network (NYCWiN), launched in 2006 and touted as a state-ofthe art tool meant to improve public safety communications, has not met some of its most basic initial goals, such as allowing police officers to access photos of suspects from patrol cars, or the ability of the FDNY to download building floor plans when responding to a fire.
NYCWiN is currently deployed, Vallone said, in 1,200 patrol cars, and gives police officers access to broadband-speed data, scans of driver’s licenses, and access to multiple databases. The FDNY uses NYCWiN to share videos from emergencies with its Operation Center. Other projects are in development and are being tested in pilot programs.
Vallone also made reference to the Citywide Incident Management System (CIMS), which requires the co-located, unified command when multiple city agencies respond to an incident. Holloway described it as “perhaps the most important operation change that the city has made since that terrible day”.
The joint committees also examined a City Council resolution sponsored by Vallone in support of the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Act, that would allow for a national broadband system, and would enable first responders across the country to share information in real time. He said the administration is highly supportive of this measure.
Also testifying at the hearing were: NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Dowd, commanding officer of the Communications Division; FDNY Chief Robert Boyce, Chief of Communications and city Department of International Technology and Telecommunications Associate Commissioner of Wireless Technologies Steve Harte.