"Always be prepared" has been the long-time theme of the Boy Scouts and U.S. Marines. Unfortunately, tragedies such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the recent sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area have revealed just how unprepared many emergency-response services are for communicating with each other during major crises.
Cellular technology has given us unprecedented communications capability. High-tech cell phones let us talk to anyone at any time, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the same is not true among emergency response departments—police radios can't link to fire-department radios, and they in turn can't link to other emergency-response groups, like hospitals, utilities, and the telephone. Thus in a very real sense, the left hand is not immediately aware of what the right hand may be doing.
During normal conditions, this disassociation causes few problems. In fact, the use of different communication bands provides the separation of communication channels needed to avoid frequency congestion caused by too many people trying to use a small piece of the spectrum. Yet as we all found out, in times of emergency, not knowing what the other groups are doing, or lacking cross-group communications, significantly increases the time necessary to retrieve information and other messages, thereby delaying the response to the emergency.
Part of the problem during the 9/11 tragedy was that the antenna towers on the World Trade Center were destroyed when the buildings collapsed, hindering any type of wireless communications. Such a catastrophic event had not really been included in the recovery scenarios, and it took a long time to restore communications. But even when the communications came back, there was still the need for the fire department, police department, and other groups to cross-communicate.
Although antenna towers remain in place in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland, the cross-department/jurisdiction communication challenges were also significant hurdles in moving the sniper investigation forward. In this situation, some challenges may have been more political or jurisdictional in nature, and the ability to cross-communicate was hindered by the technology largely in the hours immediately following a shooting.
Today, cross-communication issues are being addressed through the realization that different departments are actually interrelated, making it critical to share information. That lack of information sharing is being blamed as a key reason why the 9/11 terrorist attacks caught us off guard. Sometimes the solution is simple. Multiband emergency radios and special communication response vans can be driven to the scene of an emergency to enable disparate groups to talk to each other. These vans are equipped with multiple radio systems and the ability to link any systems, enabling critical cross-communications without any delays.
In any complex scenario, communications between departments is essential. Too often in the OEM world, marketing defines the product and basically tosses it over a wall to engineering, which must design the product. Engineering then basically tosses it over another wall to manufacturing and test.
Getting these departments to talk to each other during product development has been a challenge, but one that many companies are addressing. Communications is especially vital between design, manufacturing, and test. A critical decision during the design of a key ASIC may have a profound effect on the ability to test the chip or the system later. It could even affect the way the system has to be manufactured due to power or signal-integrity issues.
These days, there's no excuse for not communicating. With just a few clicks of the mouse button, e-mail and video mail can create global links that connect product development and manufacturing teams distributed around the world. Now that the need to deal with terrorist situations has sadly become routine, sharing information between services is a matter of life and death.