Several years ago, as a dispatcher on Phoenix's west side, my telephone rang. An off-duty Phoenix officer was behind a stolen vehicle. He had tried to clear over his portable radio, but, as was common with the old 450s, I wasn't able to hear him, his transmission lost somewhere in the land of missing radio communications. I copied the information and repeated it over my frequency. I continued to relay for several minutes, but then things got complicated. The vehicle would soon cross Camelback Road. We were going into another city, Glendale. This posed a problem because Phoenix officers were unable to talk to Glendale officers. I had to put my officer on hold and call Glendale dispatch. Then, the Glendale dispatcher took the information I gave her over the phone and relayed it to her officers over the radio. So, I was talking to a Phoenix officer on the phone, giving his information to Phoenix officers over the radio, as well as giving the information to a Glendale dispatcher over another phone line, who was in turn repeating the information to Glendale officers over their radio (take a breath). Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon. And, it can get much more tragic.
In 1995, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, firefighters believed a second bomb existed. Fire dispatchers communicated this, as well as instructions to evacuate, over the fire radio. But these instructions did nothing to warn the police officers inside the building who were using another frequency. Runners were used to communicate between agencies. Runners were also used after the 1999 Columbine school shooting where 46 agencies with predominately incompatible radio systems assisted. And, in an especially tragic example of how deadly radio incompatibility can be, the Honorable Deborah J. Daniels, Assistant Attorney General, stated in 2003,
One tragic example is the September 11th terrorist attack in New York City. While police and firefighters rushed up the stairs of the burning World Trade Center buildings, incident commanders outside could hear helicopter radio reports that the towers were dangerously close to collapse.
They were able to warn their police officers via radio to vacate the buildings immediately. As a result, all but 60 officers escaped with their lives. Tragically, hundreds of New York firefighters couldn't hear that warning because they were using a different radio communications system. 343 firefighters died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack that terrible day.
Although much has changed in the way law enforcement does business post-9-11, some things remain the same. After Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, Osceola (MI) Undersheriff Dave Fowler, one of numerous officers who assisted, stated the greatest law enforcement need after a disaster is communications. "Even the 9-11 Commission listed inoperable communication as one of the major downfalls of multiple agencies working together. We saw it [in New Orleans]. The enormity of Katrina really emphasized it and brought it home. Inoperable communications would be the number one problem facing officers." So, the problems facing emergency responders in 1995 still faced them in 1999, then in 2001, and again in 2005. How many times can the tragedy of radio inoperability prove itself before things change? As dispatchers, how long will we be expected to relay information in antiquated ways while praying we get the information out to everyone who needs it before someone gets hurt? Fortunately, it appears agencies are beginning to do something about radio incompatibility issues.