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We Have a Failure to Communicate

In emergencies, police and firefighters need to get on the same frequency.

November 01, 2002|Jack Weiss

The Beltway sniper shootings not only disrupted civilian life around the nation's capital last month, they stretched public safety communications to the breaking point. Police from different counties, states and agencies struggled to speak with one another because their communications systems were often incompatible.

Flash back to Sept. 11, 2001. New York Police Department helicopter pilots circling the World Trade Center reported their assessment that the towers' collapse was probably imminent, unaware that the firefighters in the buildings could not hear what they were saying.

As former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman wrote in their recent Council on Foreign Relations report on holes in emergency preparedness, "in virtually every major city and county in the United States, no inter-operable communications system exists to support police, fire department, and county, state, regional and federal response personnel during a major emergency."

That includes Los Angeles.

The digital radios carried by Los Angeles Police Department officers and the analog radios used by local firefighters cannot communicate with each other. Although the Fire Department has purchased some digital radios for use during an emergency, police and fire commanders directing emergency response have to play an elaborate game of "telephone" to relay radio transmissions.

The Sheriff's Department can link with the LAPD but is likewise unable to communicate directly with firefighters.

It shouldn't take a mass killer, a terrorist attack or a catastrophic earthquake to bring about a remedy for L.A.'s communications gap. Some problems, like 911 overload, are already urgent.

During the Washington sniper attacks, thousands of citizen calls to 911 overwhelmed emergency circuits. A Maryland 17-year-old died after an asthma attack Oct. 14 after what family members described as repeated unsuccessful efforts to get through to 911.

Many callers -- reportedly including the suspects themselves -- were frustrated by the ad hoc tip lines established to collect information from the public.

Los Angeles already has a 911 system stretched beyond the max, often by nonemergency calls. Attempts to get tips and nonemergency complaints sent to other numbers have foundered for lack of publicity and coordination. The threat of terrorism makes it imperative to route routine callers off emergency circuits.

The long-anticipated 311 nonemergency system is scheduled to begin service before the end of the year, and no delays should be tolerated.

The city's new 911 call center also is to begin handling calls in the coming weeks. This long-awaited facility has computer-operated phones and a customized dispatch system that will improve emergency communications.

The city also is preparing to build a new $120-million facility to house the Emergency Operations Center approved in March 2002 as part of Proposition Q. The center should be designed not to accommodate the current, incompatible communications systems of the Police Department and Fire Department but rather to be the hub of a new integrated emergency communications network.

That's the future, however. Some problems can be cured here and now.

The technology to link firefighters and police officers in real time already exists. "Interconnector" systems provide instantaneous patching among as many as 24 different radio systems.

Politicians talk a good game about protecting firefighters and police officers, but they use budget concerns to delay technology that can save lives. It will take unprecedented cooperation between the city and the county to fund systems and link departments that have historically failed to cooperate.

We've heard the warnings from 9/11 and the sniper case. There's no excuse for ignoring any part of the problem.


Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, is author of "Preparing Los Angeles for Terrorism," available at

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