WASHINGTON – Emergency workers responding to the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon were helped by “virtually seamless” communication over common radio frequencies, but more needs to be done, a Maryland emergency official testified Wednesday.
“If you cannot communicate effectively, you cannot effectively operate,” said Steve Souder, the director of Montgomery County’s Emergency Communications Center.
Souder told a Senate subcommittee that several Virginia jurisdictions already share channels and that Maryland’s Howard and Montgomery counties plan to join by the end of the year.
But he said federal agencies, such as the Justice and Defense departments, should be added in case of a future crisis, and he urged the Federal Communications Commission to free up radio spectrum space to allow more agencies under the existing umbrella.
Souder was one of eight public- and private-sector officials testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications about emergency communications during and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who chaired the hearing, noted that demand for wireless phone channels jumped more than 200 percent on Sept. 11. Besides an increase in demand, relay towers can also be damaged in natural disasters or attacks, as was the case in New York.
Souder said the problem of jammed communication is particularly pressing for first responders, who cannot coordinate their responses unless they have the ability to communicate openly.
He said local emergency responders learned that in the Air Florida crash of 1982, when a jet taking off from National Airport crashed into Washington’s 14th Street Bridge — just a quarter-mile from the Pentagon.
Emergency workers responded from across the area, and while they all arrived on the scene ready to work, they were unable to coordinate because they found themselves unable to communicate with one another.
“It was literally a disaster in itself,” Souder said.
As a result of the problem, congressional hearings were held and the FCC has since moved to open wavelengths to local emergency response agencies. The lessons learned from Air Florida paid off 20 years later, Souder said.
“On Sept. 11, when the plane struck the Pentagon, and the first responders responded, they were able to do so in a far more effective fashion than had been the case 20 years prior to that,” Souder said. “The communication was virtually seamless, flawless and very effective.”
Currently, police and fire agencies in the city of Alexandria and in Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia share a radio frequency with Reagan National Airport and the Washington, D.C., Fire Department.
But while radio waves served as an effective means of communication, cellular lines were gridlocked in Washington, as elsewhere. Souder suggested first responders be given priority on cellular phone lines operated by private companies, such as Verizon and AT&T, in the event of a future disaster.
A Verizon official testified Wednesday that the company’s wireless system never went down on Sept. 11, although lines were crowded. In prepared testimony, Paul Crotty also said the company is working with federal, state and local governments to ensure the system will be safe in future crises.