Wireless phone signals increasingly interfere with emergency radio frequencies used by police and firefighters, the Washington Post reports. Emergency departments across the country report unsettling stories of officers who can’t call for backup, dispatchers who can’t relay suspect descriptions and firefighters who can’t request ambulances because of radio “dead spots” likely caused by wireless phone interference.
The Federal Communications Commission vows to find a solution, even if it has to reorganize a large swath of the radio spectrum — a massive and controversial task that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years.
No death or catastrophe has been attributed to such communication problems, said Robert Gurss of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International, a nonprofit organization representing emergency communication officials. Dozens of agencies large and small have complained, and one source estimates that interference is a problem in at least 27 states.
The issue has its roots in the 1970s, when the FCC assigned channels in the 800 megahertz band to public safety departments. In the 1980s, wireless companies began to acquire space adjacent to the emergency radio frequencies. As the agencies and wireless companies occupied more spectrum space, airwave conflicts intensified.
A common problem arises when a police officer is close to a wireless phone company transmitter but far from a tower that carries the signals for emergency radios. In that situation, the wireless phone tower overpowers the officer’s radio, rendering it useless. To solve the problem, the FCC is considering reshuffling channels in the 800 megahertz band. The idea is to separate the wireless companies from the public safety departments. Public safety officials said the situation is urgent. “If we don’t fix this now, it’s only going to get worse,” Gurss said.