The next time disaster strikes, chances are that emergency and rescue personnel racing to the scene still won’t be able to talk to one another, says Newhouse News Service. Despite years of meetings and billions of federal dollars spent, many police can’t communicate with fire departments from the next county or state, never mind the governor’s emergency operations center, state cops, or the National Guard. The problem was obvious on on Sept. 11, 2001, and again during Hurricane Katrina. David Boyd, who manages the issue for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, admits the federal effort has been “erratic, uncertain and until recently, uncoordinated.” It can’t be resolved, he said, without “serious leadership commitment” and “setting egos aside.”
Almost everyone blames federal bumbling. “The feds are killing us,” complained Mike Nucci, director of emergency management in Philadelphia. “DHS loves to have meetings and meetings. We don’t have the time.” Most of the time, emergency managers say, they don’t need what they call “interoperability.” As a result, they invest in whatever radio fits their particular style, culture, and budget. With DHS help, some urban regions are building networks among the agencies that would show up in a big disaster or terrorist attack. It’s a Herculean task. San Diego County has a county sheriff, county police and fire departments, 18 city governments, harbor police, and 28 local police and fire departments and must communicate with hospitals, schools, California National Guard, California Highway Police, and state and federal agencies. While the technical difficulties of networking everyone are daunting, Boyd and others say the larger problems involve culture and even language.