Achieving Voice & Data Interoperability

The tragic events of 9/11 brought to light the absolute need for quality, reliable, interoperable radio systems.

BEEP Beep Beep . . . beep beep beep. These are often the sounds first responders hear from their radios as they try and communicate with one another during an emergency. In most cases, these personnel are in high-risk situations, surrounded by smoke and fire, hordes of people, or the risk of chemical or biological exposure.

Too frequently, these sounds signal that the radio frequency the system operates on is overloaded or the first responder is no longer in the coverage range, leaving these personnel without a safety net and without a way to find one. Unfortunately, these radios serve as their only direct link to the outside, the only way to communicate with commanding officers, and the only way to reach the rest of the rescue team.

The first responder must now compromise his safety and reach for his cell phone. The phone that was purchased for casual conversation is being used as a first response tactical instrument. However, it was not designed for use in a situation of this magnitude. Not to mention that coverage plans don't usually include metal warehouse buildings.

Just 10 years ago, few were able to foresee the predicament we are now in: Municipalities have found themselves woefully unprepared and under-funded to effectively safeguard the general public and themselves from large-scale, looming threats. Large public venues such as shopping malls, sports stadiums, and high-rises do not have proper evacuation plans that will get inhabitants out quickly and safely.

For the past few years, our safety and security industries have moved in isolated paths. A facility's safety professional was not typically involved with security of a building, nor was a security guard involved with the safety of people inside. Advances in technology for safety professionals have been concentrated on improving gas detectors and communications equipment. Early equipment often contained sensitive circuitry, was prone to false readings, or required excessive maintenance. In addition, the physical size of this equipment made it cumbersome to use.

The security industry faced a variety of challenges on how to use current available technologies. While an industry professional is able to pinpoint what her safety issue is, a first responder is more likely to be on a fact-finding mission. When answering an emergency call, the first responder must quickly assess the situation and determine how to proceed.

The realm of responsibility for today's first responders, including police, fire, and military, has undergone massive change. In addition to accidents and fires, the possibility of terrorism is constantly present. Heightened public awareness and concern for personal safety have strained the limits of the first response community. Terms such as "biological," "chemical," and "white powder" are popping up all over the news. The cost of responding to these possibilities grows constantly. The only way to reverse this trend is to enable information to be extracted from an incident faster, thereby reducing the cost.

The tragic events of 9/11 have brought to light the absolute need for quality, reliable, and interoperable radio systems capable of disseminating a wide scope of information. The need for communications that can extend beyond voice is now a requirement. Information that is requested to assess the risk of a situation may now include location, video images, exposure information, and remote equipment control, among others. Commanding officers need to know exactly what is going on, sometimes even requiring the ability to send images of possible chemical threats to appropriate agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These were concerns that didn't exist as visibly before buildings on Capitol Hill and major postal facilities were shut down in 2001, precisely because of an inability to properly assess threat levels. Thousands of federal employees were left with unnecessary prescriptions for Cipro and without office space.

Cost Analysis of an Actual 911 Suspected Anthrax Call

This analysis is based on a real incident of contaminated mail sent to the president of a major telecommunications company during the week of March 17, 2003.


March 17, 2003

10:15 a.m.

911 call made reporting incident

Police dispatch hazmat team

Fire dispatches hazmat team


March 17, 2003

11:05 a.m.

Fire team on scene

Police team on scene

The Fire Department evacuated the building and isolated the individuals directly involved. The Police Department set up an Incident Command and Control Center (ICCC) and sent two hazmat technicians dressed in Level A suits (the highest protection available) into the hot zone.

After initial survey monitoring was completed, a radiation screen was performed. This survey took approximately one minute and the results indicated nothing (see above). Next, they tested for biological agents. After approximately seven minutes, this test proved positive for amino acid in the unknown powder. The responders then used a field microscope, with wireless connection for video image transfer, for further evaluation. They prepared a slide of the unknown powder and placed it under the microscope. This took nine minutes. A digital camera took a picture and the image was then sent via wireless transmission to the ICCC, where it was viewed on a portable monitoring console containing a laptop computer and radio equipment.

The Incident Commander then transferred this image to a contract lab in San Bruno, Calif., where there is a microbiologist staff on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week for immediate response. The microbiologist reviewed the image and found it to be negative for biological agents. This information was transmitted back to the Incident Commander; the process took 14 minutes. The Incident Commander directed the hazmat technicians to further test the unknown substance for chemical weapons. After 12 minutes, this process turned up negative results also. The unknown substance was then tested for further identification and was found to be protein enriched flour. An all-clear sign was conveyed to the building employees, and they were able to return to work without further incident.

Total Time Involved:

Initial report

March 17, 2003

10:15 a.m.


Scene Secured

March 17, 2003

12:08 a.m.

Total time elapsed

1 hour, 53 minutes


Using current response protocols (what the first responders are using today), this same scenario would play out in the following way:

Response time for fire and police:

40 minutes


Evacuate building and quarantine potential victims:

3 days

Collect samples and send to lab for analysis:

3-day turnaround

Costs incurred in addition to the emergency response expenses:


3 days of unemployment for 150 people


Initial medical screening for 150 people


Lab costs for analysis of samples (approximately $300 per sample)


Disruption of company sales


Media-related costs, including local panic and a rise in "white powder"-related reports.


Wireless Technologies
During the pre 9/11 era, the consumer market drove the wireless market and the needs for new wireless technologies. Now, first responders are demanding to be heard. A demand for voice and data interoperability has mandated the need to tie together many wireless platforms.

The optimal safeguard for the first responder is the consolidation of information. Spearheading this need is the ability to get information from an event such as a toxic spill or dirty bomb to the people who can help make informed decisions quickly. Technology is moving toward an ideal system that takes into account the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). This system provides an open architecture that is needed to make interoperability possible among multiple agencies.

The design allows for maximum flexibility and a system that is easily expanded. The purpose is to obtain information derived from an environmental incident and distribute it through means of an encrypted wireless system back to a command center. The wireless system used can be any form of Radio Frequency (RF), ranging from those used in television transmission to microwave frequencies found in many satellite systems. The wireless standard found in Wi-Fi (wireless LAN) may be used; wide bandwidth allows for a fast transmission of information. This standard also offers high security through the use of encryption. Because video contains much more data than voice, bandwidth is a critical element when utilizing streaming video or sending large data files such as still photography or drawings of buildings.

With this type of system, information is accumulated using equipment carried into the scene by the emergency responder. The equipment may consist of a rugged, hand-held computer or Heads Up Display (HUD), detection monitors for hazardous atmospheric compositions, audio/video devices, or a wireless microscope for sending biological and/or chemical pictures. With the addition of information from detection devices, the capacity of a system with these capabilities is limitless: It has the unique ability to move freely from a building fire to a terrorist attack, while keeping all necessary agencies informed.

The data accumulated is transmitted to the incident command vehicle via an encrypted wireless link in real time. By allowing this information to be distributed in real time, the incident commander can decide on appropriate actions quickly. The incident command vehicle can then route the information to the appropriate authorities via numerous communication paths, including but not limited to: satellite, cellphone, two-way radio, broadband wireless, Bluetooth, and Ultra Wide Band. (To consider use of such new equipment, see the accompanying sidebar).

The Need for Adequate Funding
Technology is available and appropriate for safety and security professionals. But technology is only part of the equation. Few standards exist for personnel. While no simple, straightforward solution exists for all of our problems, we must have reasonable expectations that our federal and local governments will dedicate the necessary time, training, and funding to providing the equipment that will enable our first responders to work effectively and safely.

In addition, government agencies need to look at the emerging field of security studies as a source of information. The Center for Unconventional Security Affairs at the University of California, Irvine, hopes to lead the way in this field. It is the first effort of its kind in California--and perhaps the nation--that partners academics with business leaders and public safety workers to address the unique elements and challenges in maintaining our nation's security.

The terrorist attacks almost two years ago claimed more than 3,000 lives and imposed direct and indirect costs on the United States that have been estimated as being between $100 billion and $1 trillion. These attacks have underscored the immeasurable importance of our first response capabilities. With better equipment, lives might have been saved and economic costs reduced.

We may never be able to anticipate the actions of those who are determined to destroy us, but technology that is able to reduce loss of lives and protect those who protect us is an essential step in the right direction.

This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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