By Kelly M. Sharp, with Keri Losavio
“I don’t get it,” said “Kim. “What’s all this fuss about interoperability and NIMS? Haven’t we always used it?”
The question caught the senior telecommunicators on the floor by surprise. Kim has been a telecommunicator for five years, and interoperability, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the incident command system were just another part of her basic telecommunicator academy. It’s hard for her to imagine that there was a time, not so long ago, when police and fire agencies did not talk to each other on the radio, when there was not a system in place for working with responders from out of state, that dispatch could not assign different radio channels for different events, and even if they did, it was hard to get fire and police to talk together on it, or that the terminology used to describe resources varied wildly from one center to another.
Then came the attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and the failed attack on the Capitol, which resulted in the crash in Shanksville, Pa.
The plane crash into the Pentagon was witnessed by Fort Myer (Va.) Fire Dept. firefighter Allan Wallace. At 9:38 a.m., Wallace saw American Airlines Flight 77 turn toward the Pentagon. He warned Mark Skipper and both men ran for cover. He used the radio in Foam 161 to call the crash into dispatch. In addition to the 64 crew and passengers aboard Flight 77, 125 military service members, employees and contract workers died in the attack. (1)
In Shanksville, the initial dispatch was for “plane down, Skyline Drive at Lambertsville Road.” The call went out at 10:06 a.m. Including the hijackers, 44 people were killed; there were no survivors of United Airlines Flight 93. (2)
In New York, EMT Alexander Loutsky, Fire Department of New York (FDNY) EMS, and his partner, EMT Eric Ramos, were at an intersection near the Brooklyn Bridge with the World Trade Center (WTC) in front of them. That’s when Loutsky noticed a plane going down. “It was flying low,” he said in an interview with the editors of JEMS (the Journal of Emergency Medical Services) conducted a few weeks later. (3) “I interrupted [Eric]. ‘Look at that! Look how low that plane is! It’s gonna hit. It’s gonna hit!’ A few seconds later, it exploded. We just shook.
“Quickly, I took my radio, and I thought, ‘I have one shot to get it right,’ because the radios are terrible down here. You always have to repeat yourself, or they put us out with no response and stuff. I said, ’01 Charlie for the priority.’
“’01 Charlie, go.’
“’01 Charlie. We have just witnessed a plane hit the World Trade Center.’
“[The dispatcher] went, ‘What?!’ and then everything went crazy on the radio. You couldn’t transmit anymore.”
Following the crash of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the WTC at 8:46 a.m. and United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., more than 55,000 9-1-1 calls were received, 3,000 in the first few minutes; thousands of law enforcement officers and firefighters were on scene by the end of the day trying to rescue 18,000 civilians. (4) Almost 3,000 people died, including 343 firefighters, eight EMS providers (those officially responding; www.jems.com/article/major-incidents/memoriam), 60 police officers and 55 members of the military services. (5) It was the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history, and it happened in less than two hours.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the repeater system that had been installed at the WTC following the 1993 bombing was never fully activated. The 9-1-1 system was plagued by a lack of awareness on the part of the telecommunicators of what was occurring on scene. Information was not flowing back to them. “Command and control decisions were affected by the lack of knowledge of what was happening,” the report states. Radio problems prevented many FDNY personnel from hearing the eventual evacuation order. And the report also states, “There is no evidence that PAPD officers without WTC Command radios received an evacuation order by radio.”
According to the Associated Press, “Sept. 11 was a convergence of the worst possible problems in communication technology—a jammed commercial network made cell phone use impossible. Police and firefighter radio networks were not compatible. But the main problem, the FDNY says, was the damage done to infrastructure called repeaters, which made radio signals work at the Twin Towers. That left many commanders and firefighters unable to talk to each other. Firefighters in the stairwells couldn’t hear the evacuation order, and as a result, 343 died.” (6)
These attacks fundamentally changed the way people in the U.S. viewed our invincibility and brought terrorism to our front door. It also ushered in a new way of thinking for emergency services personnel at the frontline of the fight. Today, although Osama bin Laden is dead, terrorism remains a threat to the U.S. and the possibility of another event like 9/11 cannot be discounted. For those in public safety, this means rethinking the “normal” way of doing business and learning from the lessons of the past.
Seen from 10 years in the future, it’s amazing that the emergency response system functioned at all during this epic disaster, much less that it functioned as well as it did. But as always in a situation of this size, the inevitable questions arise: What went right? What could have been done differently? What do we do now that came from the lessons we learned then?
Interoperability & the Radio System
Webster’s dictionary defines interoperability as the “ability of a system to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system.” Use Google to search for a definition and a dizzying array of technical definitions about compatible computer systems comes up. For those in public safety, however, the definition is a bit different. In the February 2009 issue of the National Summary of Statewide Interoperability Plans (SCIPS), the Department of Homeland Security defines interoperability as “when emergency response officials can be deployed anywhere in the country, use his or her own radio to communicate with other responders, and use the compatible standard operating procedures (SOPs) he or she has been trained on in their respective jurisdictions.”
Interoperability in public safety is more than just radio frequencies and SOPs. For first responders, interoperability also means the ability to work together across jurisdictions and agencies. It is everyone; fire, police, EMS and dispatch on the same page, working toward the same goal, using the same format. It’s learning from the lessons of the past and creating a better plan for the future.
Unfortunately, interoperability remains an issue for public safety communications. During the recent APCO International Conference & Expo in Philadelphia, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a former Manhattan EMT and CPR instructor, lamented, “Only one month away from the 10th anniversary of 9/11, our first responders still don’t have an interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety. Our 9-1-1 call centers still can’t handle texts or pictures or video being sent by the phones that everyone has.” (7)
Genachowski’s comments to the APCO audience reinforced statements he made at the White House on June 16. At that time he said, “I applaud the Senate Commerce Committee for its strong bipartisan action [in support of S. 911 on June 8] to move forward with a public safety mobile broadband network and with incentive auctions to free up new spectrum for commercial use and to raise significant amounts of money.”
Legislation to allot additional spectrum to public safety and fund a nationwide broadband network for public safety (S. 911) is being championed by Democratic senators John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican.
“I’m deeply concerned that legislation hasn’t yet been adopted,” Genachowski said on Aug. 10. “Every day of delay risks compromising the vital goal of interoperability, the core of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation. I’m deeply concerned that 9/11 of this year will come and go, and we’ll still be waiting. I’m renewing my pledge to work hard with you on this. There’s no greater priority than moving forward on a smart spectrum plan to save lives and create jobs.”
“To this day, I have nightmares of police officers calling for help and not being able to answer them,” Bruce Adler, who was a radio dispatcher that day, told Colleen Long of the Associated Press in August. (6)
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “As of September 11, FDNY companies and chiefs responding to a fire used analog, point-to-point radios that had six normal operating channels. Typically, the companies would operate on the same tactical channel, which chiefs on the scene would monitor and use to communicate with the firefighters. Chiefs at a fire operation also would use a separate command channel. Because these point-to-point radios had weak signal strength, communications on them could be heard only by other FDNY personnel in the immediate vicinity. In addition, the FDNY had a dispatch frequency for each of the five boroughs; these were not point-to-point channels and could be monitored from around the city.
“… The NYPD precincts were divided into 35 different radio zones, with a central radio dispatcher assigned to each. In addition, there were several radio channels for citywide operations. Officers had portable radios with 20 or more available channels, so that the user could respond outside his or her precinct. ESU teams also had these channels but at an operation would use a separate point-to-point channel (which was not monitored by a dispatcher).
“The NYPD also supervised the city’s 9-1-1 emergency call system. Its approximately 1,200 operators, radio dispatchers, and supervisors were civilian employees of the NYPD. They were trained in the rudiments of emergency response. When a 9-1-1 call concerned a fire, it was transferred to FDNY dispatch.”
Was the radio system in place during 9/11 adequate to the needs of the disaster? “It is a misconception that there was a significant failure in the radio systems,” says Jay Kopstein, who retired as deputy chief of New York Police Department (NYPD) in March 2010, after 37 years of service. According to Kopstein all of the transmitters and satellite receivers in New York City are designed with “double redundancy,” which means if one went down another would take over. “If the repeaters weren’t working, the tapes wouldn’t have recorded anything. Because the tapes recorded, you knew that something was being said,” he says. But what was said may not have been heard.
For Kopstein it was not necessarily an issue of equipment failing. Rather it was the sheer level of noise engulfing responders. “When you work in your dispatch center do you have earphones on?,” he asks. “What happens if the noise in the center exceeds the volume of the call coming into your earphone?” This is similar to what faced the responders working inside the buildings on 9/11. It was not that the radios did not work, he says. It was that the noise from the fire and crashing buildings overwhelmed the responder’s ability to hear what was being said over the air. For telecommunicators this is a sobering thought.
If the problem was that they couldn’t hear each other because of the noise level, how does radio interoperability come into play? How does it affect responder safety? One challenge on 9/11 was the sheer number of users clogging the radio frequencies. Even on a normal day, if two officers try to talk at once, only one gets out. If commanders are trying to talk to other commanders on the same channel that units on scene are trying to use, no one can be heard. Now imagine hundreds of responders all trying to communicate at once.
Improvements have been made since 9/11. “A state-of-the-art fire department operations center (FDOC) has been constructed and put into full operation at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” Jace P. Pinkus, chief in charge of Emergency Medical Dispatch, Bureau of Communications,” told Public Safety Communications in 2006. “The FDOC has many functions, including acting as a critical point for contacting other agencies. The personnel assigned to the FDOC are responsible for updating and making notifications to the fire department’s senior staff. The center is also capable of facilitating the activation of the department’s incident management teams. Other capabilities include access to NYPD direct-video transmissions, Department of Transportation digital photographs, video teleconferencing and on-scene live video footage from media helicopters and ground vehicles. The center can monitor, record and replay radio transmissions for Fire and EMS, NYPD, OEM and other agencies. With these improvements, the center can serve as an off-site command post.” This improvement alone might have saved the lives of the command staff on site at the WTC who got caught in the collapse of the South Tower.
Frequencies were not the only updates after 9/11. Equipment also improved. FDNY now has radios with multi-frequency systems to allow responders from the same agencies to talk among themselves and also allow FDNY to communicate with NYPD. Post radios, about the size of a suitcase, can be brought to the scene to boost radio signals when firefighters are in high-rise buildings, subways or anywhere else radio transmissions may have trouble getting through concrete.
Even vehicles have improved since 9/11. One challenge for responders at a major event is the need to coordinate a response while juggling different radios to talk those in different departments or agencies. But in New York, the Raytheon ACU1000, installed in mobile command centers and field communication kits, creates a gateway device to connect different radio bands over IP connections. This audio bridge allows the commander on scene to direct the use of a laptop to create a radio patch right from the vehicle. This means that no matter what frequency the responders are using they can communicate as if they were on the same one.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say there’s a bomb threat to a financial institution that requires a police and fire response on frequency No. 1. The responders find an active device, evacuate the building and notify the FBI. Agents from the FBI arrive on scene with radios set to frequency No. 2. Then Homeland Security arrives with information about the type of bomb, but they can only transmit on frequency No. 3. With an audio bridge, a few commands are punched into a laptop and voila, suddenly the radios think they are on the same channel. Everyone can hear the same information even though they are technically on different networks. This reduces the need for people on scene to switch back and forth to provide updates. The device in the vehicle does it for them.
Automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems have become common in responder vehicles across the nation, providing dispatch with the real-time location of their units. Finally, emergency buttons in vehicles and portable radios alert telecommunicators and fellow responders when units are in distress and are often designed to allow overrides of all other radio traffic to the person who needs help.
What does all this mean for today? Because of the lessons learned on 9/11 agencies across the nation are better equipped to handle a major event simply because they can share information and communicate more effectively.
National Incident Management System
Based on the Incident Command System that has been around for years in the public safety world, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was issued by the Department of Homeland Security on March 1, 2004, as a nationwide template to provide a way for multiple agencies to respond to disasters and incidents.
NIMS took the basic Incident Command System and created a standardized process for the nation. Why is this important? With this new system all agencies use the same terminology to refer to equipment and people, which lessens confusion during an emergency. For example, prior to the implementation of NIMS, fire agencies across the nation used different terms to refer to a vehicle that carried water. Some called it a Tender, some called it a Water Tender, and some called it a Tank. So if one agency called another and asked for a “Tank” they may get something completely different from what they were expecting. Now all agencies use the same glossary, so when someone asks for a “Water Tender” everyone knows what piece of equipment is wanted.
Not only does NIMS provide a common glossary for equipment, it provides a standardized definition of who does what, allowing everyone to understand structure and responsibilities. It’s not really anything that public safety hasn’t been doing for years; it just provides a name understood by everyone. Think about a typical police response to an accident. “If you have two cars assigned to the scene, it’s the senior officer … that’s responsible,” says Kopstein. “He’s the incident commander. If he turns around and gets on the radio and tells you to get him an ambulance and two tow trucks, he’s now the logistics chief. And if he tells his partner who’s there, ‘Do me a favor, go take names or go direct traffic,’ he’s now also operating as the operations section chief.”
So do these convoluted titles really work? According to Kopstein, the answer is a resounding yes. The NIMS system is not necessarily designed for small three or four unit responses. Rather, it is a management system that comes into play when there are multiple units, agencies or states. “A captain in the (NYPD) police department can get on the radio … and have 1,500 cops in under 40 minutes” Kopstein says. It is the same thing in the fire department. Have a 5th alarm structure fire? FDNY can have 200 firefighters there in 20 minutes.
Most agencies, even tapping every resource they have, could not match those numbers. Instead, they would have to go outside to other cities or even other states to get the help they need for a major event. Then decisions would need to be made. How does one dispatch center manage hundreds of officers? Who will be in charge on the scene? Do the responders coming from two states away use the same lingo and terminology as the local units? This is where the NIMS system would kick in. Not only does it provide a common glossary, it provides a standardized definition of who does what. Everyone understands the structure and responsibilities and there is little or no duplication. “When the operations section chief needs batteries for his radios, he knows who to go to for those batteries” Kopstein says.
Another benefit to the NIMS system is that it streamlines access to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to Kopstein, the federal government wants to see something it recognizes, especially if it is something that needs FEMA reimbursement. And that requires a specific document with specific titles. For example, in the past some states had “Memorandums of Understanding” while others used “Letters of Understanding.” This slight difference in document title could make it difficult for agencies to receive assistance from FEMA during a disaster. With every agency using the same terminology, the process is simplified. For smaller agencies with fewer resources readily available, having NIMS in place during a disaster could speed up the response to requests for help from other jurisdictions or states.
One major finding in the 9/11 Commission Report was that the agencies on scene did not work together effectively. This finding assumes a lack of interoperability and a lack of communications between agencies led to critical information being missed. Much of this assumption comes from a review of the tapes and transcripts, which showed little conversation between the leaders on scene. The 9/11 Commission Report states, “… the FDNY and NYPD each considered itself operationally autonomous. As of September 11, they were not prepared to comprehensively coordinate their efforts in responding to a major incident.”
Kopstein vehemently denies this conclusion. “Is it true that the police were not talking directly to the fire department on the radio? The answer is yes. However, if you’re standing next to somebody who has another agency’s radio, then you really don’t have to be talking to them over the radio because they are standing next to you,” he says. He also takes issue with the perceived lack of radio traffic available for review.
Law enforcement officers generally use a different pattern of radio traffic than fire does because officers work individually and fire works as a single unit made up of several people. But this does not mean those at the staff level were not talking. “If you take a look at some of the pictures from 9/11, you will see police and OEM [Office of Emergency Management] executives standing next to fire executives.” Kopstein says.
What has changed in New York since 9/11 is that training in NIMS and interoperability is now mandated. No longer a case of simply being willing to work together, agencies in New York are now required use training exercises and drills to ensure that the use of interoperability becomes automatic. “By mayoral direction, every interagency drill or exercise must have an interoperability component. Must. It’s one of the objectives in every exercise” Kopstein says. Training is quarterly and includes all New York City agencies, including the Port Authority and Rail Agencies.
This requirement provides education in NIMS in a practical exercise environment, so that when there is a major incident everyone knows his or her duties. One example Kopstein uses when explaining real life interoperability involves a fire under a manhole cover that involved fire, police and the city utility company. When responding, each agency had a different responsibility. FDNY was there to keep the fire from spreading, CON Ed was there to get the power back on, and NYPD was there for traffic control. The assumption would be that because it was a fire, FDNY would be the incident command. However, the fire caused a blackout of numerous city blocks in a five precinct area, which created a police incident. This put incident command at the police precinct. Interoperability allowed all three agencies to work together, even though they had completely different functions.
Another benefit to mandated training for everyone involved is that police and fire staff have an opportunity to learn about the structure of fellow agencies. Although telecommunicators usually understand the command structure of the agencies they work with, their responders may not. If a battalion chief needs to talk to a police supervisor, does he ask for the commander or the sergeant? If a fire captain and a police sergeant are both on scene, who is in ranking person in charge? What is the dispatch supervisor called? What is the difference between the Lead Dispatcher and the Acting Watch Commander? Why are there four people on a fire truck, but only one or two in a patrol car? NIMS training can help clarify these questions and build a working understanding of available resources before a crisis hits.
In addition to increased training in interoperability, changes mandated in New York apply to routine real-world calls. “Subsequent to 9/11, there is a fire department captain or battalion chief assigned to NYPD operations. … There is an NYPD captain, the same level as a battalion chief, assigned to fire operations” Kopstein says. Police department supervisors respond to the fire command post at every multiple alarm fire or significant fire event and fire responds on every police bomb call.
By including interoperability in both training exercises and day-to-day life, agencies across the nation have an opportunity to follow New York’s lead and practice the skills necessary for a major disaster.
No article about 9/11 can be complete without acknowledging the heroes, both those who gave their lives and those who survived to fight another day. Those are the heroes. Those who go in when others run out. Those who will give all to save just one more person.
The 9/11 Commission Report quotes Peter Hayes, who was the FDNY division chief for Lower Manhattan at the time, as saying, “We had a very strong sense that we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble, but we had estimates of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, and we had to try to rescue them.”
The 9/11 Commission Report repeatedly offers examples of firefighters who tried to save just one more civilian. Or who went back inside to look for a fellow firefighter. Stories abound of the law enforcement officers who risked, and lost, their lives trying to help one more person get out of the falling buildings. Or of EMS personnel who lost their lives because they were trying to reach that last patient. This is the nature of the heroes of public safety. This cannot be changed. Kopstein points to Hurricane Katrina, where thousands of responders from across the nation volunteered to come and help despite the danger to themselves. Implementing interoperability, improving equipment and mandating training are all lessons learned after 9/11 to help keep them safe while they do what they do.
“The events of 9/11 will remain etched in our minds forever,” then APCO International President Bill Carrow said in September 2010. “We will all remember where we were and what we were doing that day. The true unsung heroes of that day were working behind the scenes as they do every day. The telecommunications professionals in New York, Pennsylvania and the Washington, D.C./Virginia area deserve a heartfelt thank you for the jobs they performed that day.”
About the Authors
Kelly M. Sharp is a 9-1-1 police/fire/medical dispatcher and author who has been training dispatchers since 1996. She holds a master’s degree in education and is certified as a training officer by APCO and CJTC. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keri Losavio has been writing and editing publications for public safety professionals since 1998 and is the editor of Public Safety Communications. On 9/11, she was the senior editor of JEMS and personally interviewed many of the first responders to and survivors of the WTC and Pentagon attacks. Contact her at email@example.com.
1. Ward MJ. Attack on the Pentagon. JEMS. April 2002; 27(4):22–34.
2. Miller J: Bearing witness: Shanksville, Pa. JEMS. October 2001; 26(10):S-6.
3. Losavio K. 9/11 five years later: The way we were: Communications challenges at the WTC & the Pentagon. Public Safety Communications. September 2006; 72(9):24–26.
4. Wax AN. WTC tragedies prove NYC prepared for emergency communications crisis. Public Safety Communications. February 2002; 68(2):9–10.
5. 9/11 Commission Report. www.gpoaccess.gov/911/index.html.
6. Long C. 10 years later, N.Y. responders communicate better. Associated Press. Aug. 10, 2011. http://psc.apcointl.org/2011/08/10/10-years-later-n-y-responders-communicate-better/.
7. Losavio K. FCC Chair Outlines Steps to Accelerate Adoption of NG9-1-1. Aug. 11, 2011. http://psc.apcointl.org/2011/08/11/fcc-chair-outlines-steps-to-accelerate-adoption-of-ng9-1-1/.
Originally printed in September 2011 Public Safety Communications.