New Frequency Would Help First Responders

A new radio frequency is being developed to make first-respond personnel communicate more effective during emergency operations.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One glaring problem after the September 11 attacks now means a business opportunity for contractors. Police couldn't talk to firefighters, who couldn't talk to medical workers. Different agencies own different radios that could not communicate. Four years later, this problem resurfaced after Hurricane Katrina. In the days after that disaster, NPR's Neal Conan spoke with Chief Willis Carter, director of communications for Shreveport, Louisiana.

Chief WILLIS CARTER (Director of Communications, Shreveport, Louisiana): Fire, police and EMS were not necessarily in all cases able to talk to each other. That always complicates the situation. And our operability is a critical issue for communications, especially in public safety.

NEAL CONAN (NPR Reporter): Four years after 9/11.

Chief CARTER: We're working very hard to resolve some of those problems. Unfortunately it just takes some time.

INSKEEP: In a report card this month, the 9-11 Commission gave the government an F in helping emergency agencies to communicate. The government has appropriated billions of dollars to start correcting the problem. Some federal money helped to pay for a massive truck now in use in Maryland.

Chief MICHAEL O'CONNELL: Effortlessly they can talk on their own radio they're familiar with and talk to somebody on the other end who's working on a completely different system, familiar with their radio, so you don't have this, `Which button do I push?'

INSKEEP: That's Michael O'Connell, operations chief for a Maryland emergency management agency. He's describing his county's new command center, recently on display at a Homeland Security conference in Baltimore. It's yellow and white and looks like a cross between a fire truck and a Winnebago. Hoses, wires and cables snake into this truck from three directions. They serve the communications gear jammed inside.

Chief O'CONNELL: Forward here is our rack room and this would probably make an IT radio guy drool, because on this side is our 17 radios. We have five 800-megahertz radios. We have our satellite uplink-downlink. We can record on DVD anything that we see videowise. And of course we have a player, too.

INSKEEP: The antennas and satellite dishes peeking out from the roof pick up a variety of radios used by first responders. Those signals are funneled into computers and each signal is turned into digital information. Then it can be relayed to first responders on different frequencies, who otherwise would not hear anything. Chief O'Connell points to different radio signals shown on a computer screen.

Chief O'CONNELL: This is a drop box. And this looks like an old-fashioned push to talk radio console. And now by pushing this button at the base here, I can simulcast on all three frequencies simultaneously. I can bring another box up and drag these into a dialogue box, hit activate and now they are connected so I can depart and work on another issue and these folks could talk.

INSKEEP: Several companies are now competing for Homeland Security grants to build these kinds of systems. The command center is made by a Maryland company, with support from the communications giant Motorola and money form the US government. Several companies are competing for Homeland Security grants to build these kinds of systems. The Maryland truck was already tested once. Its crew drove to the Gulf Coast after Katrina and coordinated communications between ambulance services, aircraft, hospitals, clinics and volunteers, who in turn provided medical care to thousands of people.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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