City officials are quietly developing a new radio system that could prevent a repeat of the fatal miscommunications that contributed to the deaths of 343 firefighters, dozens of police officers, and thousands of civilians during the World Trade Center attacks.
The new Motorola system, which is scheduled for use by 2008, will consolidate various city radio systems into a single network that emergency responders and other city agencies will be able to access.
Although the new frequency, known as Channel 16, will be used during day-to-day operations, it could be most valuable when lives are at stake. The September 11 attacks made that clear, according to city documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
"That singular event further crystallized the extreme need for this build out," the city's request for proposals said. "The City cannot save lives and protect property if it cannot communicate to its Public Safety Agencies."
In 2004, the federal government allocated Channel 16 for municipal usage nationwide. The New York City plan will cost $75 million, according to the contract, which was registered by the city's Comptroller, William Thompson Jr.
The system will provide two citywide functions: It will serve as the new frequency for Fire Department dispatch and will be subdivided for various city agencies. In the event of a disaster, it will allow those agencies to better communicate.
The money will pay for antennas, training, transmitter and receiver sites, and other equipment, according to city documents.
"The problems with interagency communication were blatant and deadly immediately after the attacks of the World Trade Center," the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, Irwin Redliner, said. "It has taken a long time ... but one would think it would have been possible sooner than four-and-a-half years after the attacks."
City officials from the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications said yesterday that they the timeline makes sense given that the federal allocation for Channel 16 was two years ago.
Officials said the city has already made a wide variety of communication improvements since the Twin Towers collapsed and that the radio channel is only one aspect of "interoperability." A spokesman for the city's Fire Department, Francis Gribbon, said the new radio network is part of much larger puzzle.
He pointed out that the Fire Department and Police Department have a joint command structure that is activated during emergencies, which did not exist before. He also noted that fire and police officials already have the ability to communicate via radio in a way that they couldn't in 2001.
Communication between agencies was a problem during the Trade Center response that resulted in firefighters climbing higher into the towers when they should have been evacuating. Dr. Redliner said he also believed that preparedness is largely about human coordination, not just new technology.
The city selected cellular giant Motorola Inc. last year. City documents indicate there were plans to build the new network even before September 11.
Still, documents said: "The proposed build-out represents a critical post 9/11 need which cannot be accomplished via the overcrowded 800 MHz public safety spectrum."
The project is now in the early design phases. Once up and running it will also allow the city to communicate with officials in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties as well as at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
City Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., the chairman of the public safety committee, said there have been a number of "obvious improvements" in communication since 2001, but that "if you talk to the first responder on the street they are still asking for better communication."
"I'm not going to wonder what could have been," he said, referring the deaths at the Trade Center. "The heroes did everything they could have done with what they had and our mandate now is to learn from that incident and make sure that we do it even better next time."
"Channel 16," he said, "will go a long way toward improving inter-agency communication."
City Council Member Gale Brewer, the chairwoman of the council's technology committee, said she would like to see the new system functional sooner, rather than later.
"It's not a day-to-day concern, but it is a concern if there was any kind of disaster," she said. "There are lots of ways in which the city and the various agencies are better prepared ... but on the technology front there are gaps. They are being addressed, but slowly."
The move is part of a larger effort to use radio spectrum space more effectively.
A summary of the plan that Motorola submitted to the city says it will use 24 channels on the frequency and that the so-called Citywide Radio Network will allow for "dynamic statewide/regional radio interconnections."
The system will also be compatible with existing city radios, most of which are Motorola.
Dr. Redliner said: "Fortunately there has been no test of our communication capacity since 2001, but the sooner we get this running the better,"
"The trick now is to get this done before the next major disaster occurs," he said. "In that sense, even though it's four-and-a-half years later, we're still in this intense race against time."