18 Years After 9/11, Critical Incidents Still Overload Emergency Radios After the chaos of terrorist attacks, the U.S. spent billions to update first responder radio systems. But the newer gear can still be overwhelmed — as it was in the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
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Years After Sept. 11, Critical Incidents Still Overload Emergency Radios

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Years After Sept. 11, Critical Incidents Still Overload Emergency Radios

Years After Sept. 11, Critical Incidents Still Overload Emergency Radios

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the concerns that came out of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month was about the reliability of police radios. In the years since 9/11, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars to improve communications in big emergencies. And yet as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the systems sometimes still fall short.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If you go back and listen to the recording of the Broward County radio dispatch system in the minutes and hours after the Parkland shooting, what you hear is hints of frustration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Sorry, I can't transmit for some reason.

KASTE: I can't transmit for some reason, says one officer, and others echo his complaint.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: I don't know if it's because of radio problems, but I'm receiving...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #3: (Unintelligible) Just so you know, we're having trouble transmitting.

KASTE: And it gets so bad that someone finally gets on the system to say this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All cities, all radios, be advised to keep your traffic to a minimum. With each transmission it's causing it to crash. It's overloaded right now, per Motorola.

KASTE: Too many people are trying to talk and the system is crashing. Or at least that's how it seemed to police and first responders at the time. After it was all over, the people who run the county's radio system said that's not quite what was happening.

JOSE DE ZAYAS: The system was never crashing. The system was operating the way that it was designed to operate.

KASTE: Jose de Zayas is the administrator of E911 emergency radio communications for Broward County. He says what their system experienced was what he calls a throttling event.

DE ZAYAS: Where it starts to slow down and starts to restrict users from submitting inbound requests to the system.

KASTE: He says the system is being upgraded and the reception needs improving, but both he and the system's manufacturer, Motorola Solutions, insist that there were no technical failures. This kind of throttling event is simply how modern radio systems cope with too many users. Still, for the officers in the middle of a crisis, it can be very unsettling.

DAN HILS: Your radio gives you a reject sound.

KASTE: Sergeant Dan Hils is an officer in Cincinnati and also head of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. Last year, he launched a social media campaign to call attention to the shortcomings of the new digital radio system there, also made by Motorola Solutions. Hils compares the radio's digital channel assignment system to a highway.

HILS: At routine times it works fine. But you get busy and you have some sort of emergency, some sort of small riot situation or emergency with many multiple injured people, you have all this excitement. You have all these people entering that highway all at once. And when all the lanes are full, you get blocked.

KASTE: His social media campaign worked. Motorola Solutions came back to Cincinnati and made some fixes, and Hils says it is better now. But he still doesn't trust the all-or-nothing nature of digital radio. And he hears similar misgivings from other cops around the country, sort of a nagging suspicion that the expensive new systems have become too "Jetsons," as one officer put it, and may not hold up in a mass event. Bill Schrier is a senior adviser to a federal effort to build FirstNet, a new cellular network for first responders. He agrees that it is possible to overwhelm these newer digital systems.

BILL SCHRIER: During big events you'll have a lot of different people push the talk button on the side of the radio. And if you outstrip the number of frequencies in your system, you're going to get people who are unable to talk.

KASTE: But he says that doesn't mean we should go back to analog radios. Those have less capacity and can also get overwhelmed. The way he sees things, the solution to the shortcomings of digital is more digital.

SCHRIER: What we really need is we need to supplement our voice-only radio systems with networks that allow data to be transmitted - building plans, for example - or the use of apps and smartphones that will reduce the voice traffic.

KASTE: In other words, police should become a little bit more like the rest of us have become with our phones. They should talk less while uploading more - even in emergencies. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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