Scared Smart

New York is reliving its worst tragedy. Last week, the 9/11 Commission confronted a painful reality: Some 121 firefighters could have been saved if they had evacuated the South Tower when the first tower collapsed. The reason they didn't? The New York City Fire Department radio system. The doomed men did not hear the evacuation call.

While the commission blasted city officials for communication failures and departmental rivalries, WNET New York and the FDNY swung into action. They are testing a novel pilot program to ensure reliable communication for emergency responders.

If successful, the Smart Dissemination Networks (Smart Nets) system could be implemented late in the fourth quarter of 2004 or in early 2005.

How will it work?

It will use WNET's Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) transmitter at the Empire State Building to digitally
broadcast directives between a PC-based electronic command board, located at the FDNY command center, to fire trucks throughout the city.

The FDNY can use the board to store and display maps and multiple building plans. Smart Nets relay vital information to every responder who needs critical, up-to-the-minute instructions. The board enables fire chiefs to look at structural characteristics of high-rises and zoom into specific floors or areas.

If the system is effective, fire battalions will be outfitted with an electronic command board, housed in a ruggedized case. In the future, information from the command board could be forwarded to PDAs or laptops.

"With Smart Nets, we won't be risking firemen's lives at a scene," says Milton Fischberger, FDNY deputy fire commissioner of support services. "It will give an overview of what's going on to senior FDNY personnel who may not be at the location."

The first phase of the Smart Nets test involves one-way communication. The second phase includes two-way communication that could add video. Smart Nets has about 3 Mbps of bandwidth of the ITFS's 19.39-Mbps channel.

"Believe me, if these tests are successful, we'll be letting the whole country know about it," says Dr. William Baker, president and CEO of WNET. "It will be pretty clear this is something special."

The goal of Smart Nets is to "get the support to build a more regional model to stretch beyond the New York metropolitan area," adds Stephen Carroll-Cahnmann, WNET director of digital convergence, who initiated and coordinates the visionary program. "We want this to be held up as the baseline."

One caveat: Smart Nets won't replace radio communications. It will be used to provide more in-depth information in the field. In addition, it will fill in any transmission gaps.

Current communications technologies, such as cellular telephone service, have proved tragically unreliable in what the FDNY calls "fireground" communications.

"Last August, when we had the blackout, all cellular service went down because they don't use backup generators," says Fischberger. Plus, cellular technologies are subject to busy signals, dropouts, and service dead spots, says Don Stanton, FDNY assistant commissioner for technology.

The beauty of Smart Nets is that ITFS licensees are located nationwide, providing a natural breeding ground for the service. Moreover, all digital broadcasters in the U.S. could potentially get involved because they have the infrastructure—tower, antenna, transmitter—in place.

"Broadcasters can continue to operate their normal business and some of the spectrum for public-safety purposes," says Carroll-Cahnmann. "In the process, they'll save taxpayers literally billions of dollars in infrastructure costs." WNET's outlay for the receiver and transmission gear is about $150,000.

WNET's participation is helping FDNY fulfill its mandate: deploying electronic command boards at the operation center where senior staffers can direct key personnel.

Unlike magnetic wipe boards, which were destroyed when the WTC collapsed, the Smart Net information will be safely stored at the operations center. (Users of magnetic wipe boards draw the fireground area with markers and place magnets representing personnel around the board.) The cost of the electronic-command-board system for FDNY is an estimated $500,000 to $1 million.

One additional ITFS advantage is the ability to tap into more-robust transmission methods, such as COFDM, which is better for mobility and high-multipath areas like Manhattan.

Smart Nets could also expand beyond the Fire Department. The New York Police Department may use it to distribute All Points Bulletins. Currently, APBs are voice-only; Smart Nets would add photos or even video to the APB mix. The system can also be used to transmit information instantly from one car to other cars.

"If the test works," says Carroll-Cahn-mann, "then everyone will take steps to make it operational."

The National Technology Alliance researched Smart Nets in collaboration with Rosettex Technology & Ventures Group, a joint venture of Sarnoff Corp., and SRI International. Rosettex, a technology think tank, was tapped by the NTA to work as a primary contractor on the system.

So compelling is the need for fail-safe communications that Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) are co-sponsoring a bill that would compel the Department of Homeland Security to work with local authorities to establish a new comprehensive radio network.

Accountability is key. A nationwide network, coupled with a Smart Net system, won't prevent crisis, but it will ensure that emergency responders can heed the call.