NYC Fights and NYC WiNs!

May 15, 2007
Though many vulnerabilities were exposed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, none received more attention than the lack of an interoperable communications system linking New York City's (NYC's) first responders to incident command centers and city government.

Though many vulnerabilities were exposed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, none received more attention than the lack of an interoperable communications system linking New York City's (NYC's) first responders to incident command centers and city government. It seems appropriate in this first of a series of articles showcasing homeland security funding applications in different cities that "Law Enforcement Technology" focuses on the forward progress NYC has achieved in communications.

"We remain a prime — if not the prime — target for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups," Mayor Michael Bloomberg testified before Congress on January 9. "That presents challenges we are determined to meet head on. And we are sparing no expense.

"My responsibility as mayor is to first do everything I can to keep our city safe and then find a way to pay for it, and not the other way around," he continued. "And from the outset, I think we've done exactly that. Our administration has taken steps to strengthen all parts of our city, including our first line of defense — the NYPD."

Andrew Troisi, a spokesperson for NYC's Office of Emergency Management, echoes Bloomberg's sentiments. He reports his office continually seeks to improve emergency communications between agencies. Upgrading interoperable radio capabilities and evaluating new technology are major components of this effort. To this end, the Office of Emergency Management bolstered emergency response capabilities by implementing the Citywide Incident Management System and regularly conducting multi-agency exercises and training.

The move to a comprehensive and reliable system

The very first issue addressed after 9/11 was the challenge of coordinating all NYC agencies under one comprehensive and reliable communications system.

At first glance, the RFP (request for proposal) requirements for such a project seemed surreal. At second glance, they looked to be impossible. Requirements included:

  • 2 Mbps data and full-motion video for vehicles moving at speeds as fast as 70 mph;
  • Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems for 5,000 vehicles;
  • 1,000 wireless call boxes; and
  • wireless traffic control for signals at as many as 8,000 intersections.
  • After reviewing the RFP, other companies asked NYC officials to lower their expectations, but NYC dug in deep and maintained its stringent requirements. After two test programs from the two companies left standing after the bidding process — Northrop Grumman and Motorola — Northrop Grumman, headquartered in Los Angeles, California, won the contract.

Paul Chelson, Wireless Program Manager for Northrop Grumman Corp. and head of the project, says, "It was an aggressive and challenging RFP, but we knew it could be done."

In May 2007, Bloomberg announced a five-year, $500 million contract with Northrop Grumman to build, equip and maintain a citywide mobile wireless data network for public safety.

"The city has already secured roughly $20 million from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to help fund network design and build-out, and we are aggressively pursuing available funding to support this investment," states Nicholas Sbordone, director of Internal Affairs for NYC's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly calls the advanced communications network "a giant step into the future," adding, "The future success of crime fighting and public safety in general is inexorably wedded to the ability to quickly access data and share it."

More funding may be available for expanded capability as the project evolves. Future funding could include expenditures for more access to the network (tens of thousands will initially have access) and could potentially include surrounding metropolitan areas with supplementary software integration packages. After five years, the city can extend the contract for an additional 10 years of operation and maintenance.

Communicating the details

Now, about a year from full implementation, it looks as if the project will not only meet, but exceed expectations — and on time.

"The Citywide Mobile Wireless Network will be a dedicated network that will ensure public safety personnel have the tools they need at their fingertips to fight crime and help New Yorkers in emergencies," says Bloomberg. He adds the network also will improve efficiency and productivity in non-emergency situations by streamlining communications and improving service.

Chelson notes he feels confident and secure in the knowledge that milestones are being met and the system will be delivered on time. A fully operational pilot program is already active in NYC's Lower Manhattan district, and has attracted attention from other law enforcement agencies worldwide, he adds.

"This city-wide system will revolutionize the way in which first responders manage an incident," he explains. "No other city in the world has this capability, and in fact, other agencies from around the world frequently visit our pilot program to assess its capabilities."

A 9/11 Commission report regarding communications mandated that communications systems be implemented to include:

  • full backup if one sector fails;
  • the ability for an incident commander to see the "big picture" from a remote location; and
  • the capability to include other agencies necessary for incident command at a moment's notice.
  • It appears the project will accomplish all three of these goals. According to Chelson, in NYC's communications network there will be a "stash" of equipment for emergency use at strategic locations, insuring federal and state agencies arriving on the scene of an incident will be able to plug into the network. "There will be modems ready to go, so that, for instance, an FBI agent can instantly access the network, as well as information databases from his own agency from a remote location," he points out.

There may be times when an event takes place over several square miles and requires the incident commander to assess many different situations. In a large-scale disaster like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is necessary to move information quickly and securely to locations such as the mayor's office, emergency operations centers and hospitals. Additionally, it may be necessary to move information to agencies in Albany, New York, and Washington, D.C.

When the completed network goes "live" in March 2008, there will be coverage in all five boroughs of the city, notes Chelson. "At that time the officer on the street, an ambulance, a fire truck or police car (traveling up to 70 mph), the commander in a mobile incident command center, etc. will be able to access data as if they were at their desk," he says. "The power of broadband and the use of industry standards will change how agencies can coordinate, interoperate and manage incidents in the future."

In Lower Manhattan, the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Fire Department of New York (FDNY) are testing the pilot program's applications, using the equipment and experiencing its capabilities.

A full-scale test of the pilot system was conducted in June 2006. This test included subjecting the network to high broadband traffic, multi-agency input and output, on- and off-site monitoring, and wireless call box use.

"The system performed as we hoped and expected," says Chelson.

Sbordone agrees. "NYCWiN (as it has become known) is now operational throughout Lower Manhattan south of Canal Street, river-to-river, with the testing of multiple agency applications underway," he says. "These applications include license plate recognition cameras, intelligent transportation equipment, and AVL technologies. The network will be built out citywide over the next year, to be completed in the spring of 2008."

A cooperative effort?

As far as NYCWiN is going, yes, everyone is cooperating. However, there are issues reaching beyond NYC that will ultimately effect communicating with agencies outside the city. Sbordone explains, "Technical challenges can be overcome (different frequencies can be connected by using gateways, for example) — it's the political issues that are challenging. From technology- and spectrum-related standpoints, each implementing public safety jurisdiction absolutely requires the flexibility to evaluate and respond to its own circumstances, both physical and operational, rather than to have the federal government implement a top-down approach to funding allocation that doesn't take into account each municipality's unique needs."

Threat-based funding

Creating systems like this takes funding, and will continue to draw funding from the homeland security funds budget. However, that funding is not always available. New formulas for DHS fund distribution mean money is not always going to the places, such as New York City, where the threat of terrorist events is most imminent.

Bloomberg delivered powerful testimony about the problems inherent in such formulas in his January Congressional appearance. Although he never disputed that everyone is at risk, he concluded not every city is a target — or at least not as lucrative a target — to terrorism as New York.

In addressing the formulas for DHS fund distribution, he says, "Homeland security funds should all go to the places where we need those monies. Do not confuse risks with targets. … For the sake of New York City — and the sake of our nation — I hope you stop writing politically derived formulas into homeland security bills. Instead, you should give the Department of Homeland Security complete flexibility to allocate 100 percent of homeland security grants funds according to risk, threat and return on investment — and then challenge the department to exercise this flexibility in a coherent and rigorous manner."

Progress on the funding issue

According to Bloomberg, the DHS released new guidelines for the fund distribution in Fiscal Year (FY) 2007, and these guidelines gave greater consideration to threat, vulnerability and consequences of a terrorist attack. The DHS's Urban Areas Security Initiative will recognize six high-risk sensitive areas — including New York. (The following also are considered high-risk areas by the DHS: Northern New Jersey; the San Francisco Bay Area; Los Angeles and Long Beach; Chicago; Houston and Washington, D.C.) "Establishing this high-priority group is a step in the right direction," he says. "But when you actually compare the percentage of funding these six cities received last year with what's being set aside for them this year, it is virtually the same."

Homeland security funding that does not include NYC?

In 2007, the federal government will distribute $1 billion for the development of state and local interoperable communications systems. This is a very sensible effort — and it speaks directly to one of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.

But Bloomberg pointed out an interesting twist to this funding in his Congressional testimony. "As of now, none of that funding is available to New York City because our systems will operate on frequencies other than the ones specified in the federal government's new grant program," he says. "This restriction punishes us for our aggressiveness in protecting our city. We've already invested more than $1 billion of our own money in our network's infrastructure. And we're building it on a frequency that works best in the subways, skyscrapers and density of our urban environment. We've tried to develop a solution that makes sense for our city's needs because one size does not fit all — nor will it."

Bloomberg makes a strong argument, but everyone wants money, and their elected officials seek to satisfy. He ended his testimony by saying, "What this country really needs is a federal policy-making process that recognizes New York City for what it truly is: One of the largest, most densely populated areas in the world, a powerful symbol for what our enemies deeply despise, and a city that already has been targeted many times. This is our reality — and it is one that defies a mathematical formula — no matter how well-intended."

It is clear Bloomberg is not letting Congress off the hook anytime soon.

Sen. Hillary Rodham-Clinton is proposing legislation and has offered a formula for DHS spending that reflects a risk-based approach.

"I have repeatedly called upon the administration and my colleagues to implement threat-based homeland security funding to ensure homeland security resources go to the states and areas where they are needed most," she says. "I have introduced legislation toward this end and even developed a specific homeland security formula for administration officials to consider. I will continue to call for a more realistic system for allocating homeland security resources to the areas, such as New York City, where they are most needed."

Sen. Charles Schumer isn't letting the DHS slide by with less funding for New York City either. In a January 2007 press release he stated, "In the past, DHS allocated separate grants to New York City, Jersey City and Newark, but this year it combined all three together and counted it as one metropolitan region. The six highest at-risk metro areas are slated to receive $410,795,000." Over the past year Schumer has repeatedly called on the DHS to award NYC at minimum the amount it received in FY 2005, which was $207.6 million. In order for DHS to do that in FY 2007, it would need to award NYC half of what it allocated for all six Tier One cities to share.

In an effort to ensure NYC receives the money it needs from the federal government, Schumer, in a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, called for the immediate elimination of the peer review process for all homeland security grant programs and the institution of a risk-based system of review. Schumer notes he plans to introduce a bill in the 110th Congress to change the formula if the DHS does not change it willingly.

Editor's Note: Next month's article will focus on the City of Port St. Lucie, Florida. It will include interviews with St. Lucie County officials and it's sister city, Fort Pierce, which are all in the area of the nuclear reactor emergency event zone. St. Lucie County is the fastest growing county and includes Port St. Lucie, which is the fastest growing city in America. The article will feature with the police chiefs of Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce and the Sheriff of St. Lucie county, as well as the security director of the FPL nuclear facility and the FDLE's homeland security director for that region.

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