The City Council’s Public Safety, Fire & Criminal Justice Services and Technology committees held an oversight hearing today to examine first responder communication following the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11th.
The committees chaired by Council Members Peter F. Vallone Jr., Elizabeth S. Crowley, and Fernando Cabrera heard testimony from Caswell Holloway, Deputy Mayor for Operations, NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Dowd; Commanding Officer of the Communications Division, FDNY Chief Robert Boyce; Chief of Communications, and DoITT Associate Commissioner Steve Hart for Wireless Technologies.
“The tragic events of Sept. 11th exposed a number of shortfalls in ways the NYPD, FDNY and EMS communicated with their members and with other agencies. Today’s hearing marked the third of its kind, where the Council examined the City’s most recent measures to improve first responder communication.
“Our city has made significant progress in first responder communication since Sept. 11th. We are much safer, and have clear goals for future improvement. However, new challenges continue to surface and older problems ranging from communication in subway tunnels to the lack of a backup 911 center still exist,” said Council Member Vallone.
Council Member Elizabeth S. Crowley said, “Our City- particularly our subway system, tunnels and landmarked high-rises remain top targets for terrorists. The mayor’s administration needs to make sure that our emergency responders are able to effectively communicate in these high risk target areas. Today’s hearing showed that the administration still has work to do in these areas where radio system failure causes problems in communication.”
Council Member Elizabeth S. Crowley specifically addressed two specific communications-related concerns that seemed to present major operational gaps:
Communication technology in the City’s subway systems and in high-rise buildings both lacked sufficient radio coverage for NYPD and FDNY responders to efficiently relay messages to remote command centers. According to Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway, there are reported dead spots within the New York City subway system that occasionally cause disturbances in communication. The NYPD has yet to officially update from “Very-High Frequency” radios to “Ultra-High Frequency” radios. While the FDNY made the switch to UHF radios in 2009, police officers still operate on a different frequency, causing a discrepancy in communication.
Council Member Elizabeth Crowley is also concerned by reports, as of 2006, that show difficulties in communicating between high-rise buildings and remote command centers. Despite a great deal of technological progress in the past ten years, the FDNY still faces significant barriers establishing a line of communication between firefighters and command centers in buildings higher than 75 feet. Council Member Elizabeth Crowley concluded that she and Deputy Mayor Holloway must meet with the appropriate leaders to analyze data and discuss the possibility of installing more solid radio infrastructure systems within buildings throughout the city.
Council Member Vallone pointed to the following areas in need of improvement:
New York City Wireless Information Network (NYCWiN), launched in 2006 and touted as a state-of-the-art tool meant to improve public safety communication. NYCWiN has not met some of its most basic initial goals such as allowing police officers to access photos of suspects from patrol cars, or the ability for the FDNY to download building floor plans when responding to a fire. It is currently deployed in 1200 patrol cars, and gives police officers access to broadband-speed data, scan drivers licenses, and access multiple databases. The FDNY uses NYCWiN to share video from emergencies with its Operations Center. Other projects are in development and are being tested in pilot programs.
Citywide Incident Management System (CIMS) requires the co-located, unified command when multiple City agencies respond to an incident. Deputy Mayor Holloway said this is “perhaps the most important operation change that the City has made since that terrible day.”
Council Member Vallone cited concerns from members of both the NYPD and FDNY, who said on some occasions commanding officers of the respective agencies continue to use separate command centers and do not communicate within the incident command structure. As evidence, members of the FDNY said that NYPD commanding officers continue to call fire dispatches for updates and information from emergencies instead of collecting direct information from command centers.
The Committees also examined a City Council resolution sponsored by Vallone in support of S. 911, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Act, that would allow for a national broadband system, and enable first responders across the country to share information in real time. The Administration is highly supportive of this measure.