The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is responsible for deploying the Nationwide Public Safety Network, could learn lessons from the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, during which emergency responders experienced almost no interoperability problems, according to emergency management panelists at the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference in Washington, D.C.
Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, USNR (Ret.) mentioned FirstNet and its efforts to develop an interoperable broadband network for emergency management. “The promise of broadband is that we have the opportunity to invest in an interoperable system from inception,” he said, adding that the architecture is still not determined and interoperability is not a foregone conclusion.
He cited the response to the attack on the Pentagon as an example of interoperability that works. Adm. Barnett reminded the audience that the Pentagon roof, which was very old and insulated with a material made of horse hair, burned for three months following the attack. “Among the 13 agencies that responded, they had only one group that had trouble communicating.”
He added that the level of interoperability was achieved largely through close working relationships among the emergency responders. Those relationships were developed in the years prior to the attack.
“We can do the same thing on a public safety broadband network. We just have to make sure that the ultimate goal is that you end up with an interoperable network. Everything we have seen broadband bring to us—the various applications you have on your phone—can be available for public safety. And we really haven’t imagined it all,” he said. “It’s important to have the collaboration that the right kinds of communications systems enable. But if you don’t have the relationships that foster trust, it won’t matter what kind of electronics you have.”
Other panelists agreed that building relationships is key to interoperability and emergency management. Jack Brown, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Arlington County, Virginia, added that relationships for emergency responders in the National Capital area surrounding Washington, D.C., have continued to grow since the Pentagon attack.