Four days before terrorists slammed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, representatives from the Departments of Justice and Treasury signed a memorandum of understanding for creating a joint communications system.
The 9/11 attacks days later only underscored what was already known, the patchwork of federal, local and state communication systems didn't work during major catastrophes.
As New York's first responders struggled with their own communication problems, federal law enforcement agencies faced similar difficulties. Justice and Treasury alone had six separate, antiquated radio networks.
The impetus for the agreement was to create an integrated wireless network (IWN) to both reduce costs and the amount of radio spectrum allotted to the government, Vance Hatch, Justice's chief information officer told a House energy and commerce subcommittee recently. Both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina gave the IWN program renewed goals.
The Department of Homeland Security has since joined the program, along with its law enforcement officials. IWN's goal is now to connect 80,000 officers from the three departments, including such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals, Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Better communications will facilitate better mission coordination and collaboration, which in turn will make our law enforcement and homeland security personnel more effective in stopping crime and protecting the nation," Vance said.
Jerry Powlen, vice president of integrated communication systems at Raytheon, told National Defense the joint office formed by the three agencies to oversee the IWN program have indicated they are serious about a long-term vision for the system and avoiding the mistakes of the past.
"They are not interested in a proprietary system with closed architecture . [and] some of the same things we've seen go wrong in other communication systems, " Powlen said. "It was a visionary proposal they asked each of the teams to submit." Raytheon is a partner in one of five industry teams competing for the contract.
The technology to interconnect the agencies exists today, but IWN is a 15-year program, Powlen said. "I think the question is what technology is going to be there in 15 years."
The pace of technology acceleration is going to continue, he said. Today, Blackberries, along with cell phones able to show and take pictures, are ubiquitous, whereas only three or four years ago they were just concepts. IWN officials want to be able to easily integrate new technologies as they come along, Powlen added.
"How do you stay ahead of the technology curve and allow the departments to capitalize on their investment?" Powlen asked.
Structurally, IWN will be a difficult task, Hitch said. The 80,000 officers will have to communicate throughout the nation. Urban areas will be easier, but rural areas have little capacity, as Hurricane Katrina pointed out. The system will require infrastructure to be installed in approximately 2,500 locations in all 50 states and territories. Each location will have different needs. A "cookie cutter" approach will not be possible, Hitch added. Every region has a mix of structures and communication resources along with unique geographical features, he said.
Both Powlen and Hitch said the Katrina disaster also pointed to the need for better equipment survivability. Wind-damaged communication towers and local utilities weren't able to supply power. Since the hurricane, the joint office has been reassessing the ability of the future system to withstand natural disasters, Hitch added. The joint office wants to reduce its dependency on local power sources in case a terrorist attack, storm or earthquake knocks out electricity.
Powlen said the joint office has talked to Defense Department officials in order to avoid some of the costly mistakes the military made attempting to solve its own interoperability requirements with the Joint Tactical Radio System. "You have to assume that is a sign that they are trying to go learn from what happened," he added.
The joint office will downsize the pool of five teams sometimes during the first quarter of this year. The remaining competitors will be asked to design a system for the Southwest United States with a final award made by the end of this year. Nationwide deployment of the first phase is expected to begin in 2007, Powlen said.