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Why are we still coordinating disaster relief over radios?

Why are we still coordinating disaster relief over radios?

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Tuesday night, Philadelphia's emergency dispatch channels lit up. The city was the site of a catastrophic Amtrak derailment, resulting in seven deaths and dozens of injuries, and first responders were scrambling to cut through the chaos. If you listened in to the open radio channels, you could hear it — EMS drivers looking for a hospital with room for patients, or dispatchers directing resources. Even finding the right staging area was a challenge at points, given the flood of different agencies rushing to help, and conducting everything over regular non-digital radio channels only made it more of a challenge.

That's not to say the first responders were anything other than professional. Some chaos is inevitable, as responders rush in before the situation is fully understood. What's more remarkable is that despite the dawn of the internet age and the smartphone revolution, some of our most critical communication is still happening over primitive, walkie-talkie-style radio. The basic nature of the technology makes simple tasks like group formation and private messaging difficult, and imposes a constant stress over maintaining a clear channel. Aren’t there better tools for this job?

Some jurisdictions already have them. First responders in California can access information through the Next-Generation Incident Command System (also known as NICS), an MIT project sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. Developed over the last three years, NICS is meant to move all that communication to the web, plotting information on a constantly updating map of the area. The developers describe it as "carefully designed for the responder under extreme stress," accessible through mobile browsers alongside desktops. It’s also built on open standards, allowing developers to build apps on top of it or allow third-party logins from services like Google.

There are a lot of advantages to a system like NICS, starting with some of the basic questions responders faced on Tuesday night. If an ambulance driver is looking for the nearest hospital with room for new patients, a map will be more useful than a radio tool. But like any new product, adoption has been the biggest problem. NICS is available to anyone who wants it, and while it’s seen some adoption outside of California (particularly in pre-planned events like marathons), most departments have been slow to see the benefits. Even in California, the system is more of a supplement than a legitimate replacement for the standard radio system.

A test map from NICS.

There’s also the issue of tracking victims in the wake of the disaster, which has also been tackled by digital systems. Wireless medical record systems have huge advantages over conventional paper methods in a crisis situation, and in 2009, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality made recommendations for a "National Mass Patient and Evacuee Movement, Regulating, and Tracking System." An ideal system would have the ability to locate and track patients, as well as regulate their flow during mass casualty events, the Agency said. RFID tags could be used to passively monitor location, providing continuous data without requiring patients to actively check in. The system could also include real-time resources availability data from hospitals, and send automatic notifications to first responders once it’s been decided where to send a given patient. Still, six years after the system was proposed, it’s still just a wish list, and there is no comprehensive federal system for patient tracking.

So why haven’t more first responders adopted these systems? Bureaucratic inertia is certainly part of the answer, but there are also real practical concerns about how more complex systems will function in situations where the slightest technical failure can have life-or-death consequences.

Thick smoke from a fire or explosion can interfere with signals

In some cases, the problem is simply maintaining a signal. Thick smoke from a fire or explosion can interfere with signals coming from Bluetooth headsets and phones, which would cause real problems for any setup relying on a continuous connection. It’s a problem for voice radio signals too, but the nature of a responders’ channel makes it easy to drop off for a few minutes without disrupting the larger group. In other settings, the volume of traffic is a problem. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile networks were all overloaded in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, leaving many unable to contact loved ones. As a result, many are wary of moving responders to conventional data channels without more comprehensive connectivity solutions in place. Fortunately, first responders have call priority during emergencies, and could potentially get more spectrum help from the FCC if needed, but it still raises a world of problems that radio channels have already solved.

Even more practically, conventional electronics don’t play well with a lot of first responder gear. Firefighters’ gloves make it hard to use tiny electronic devices with touchscreens, which is part of the reason why you’re more likely to see a rescue team with a gigantic radio unit in hand than the latest smartphone. There are solutions — different gloves, different devices — but they would have to be deployed at tremendous scale. There are about 1,140,000 firefighters, 239,000 EMTs, and 590,000 local police officers in the US, and they’re all trained on the proper use of radio channels. Training them on the latest tablet system is an immense task, particularly when we aren’t entirely sure what we want from the system itself.

Seen in that light, the conventional radio channels look pretty good. It’s not the most powerful communication channel, but everyone responding knows how to use it, and there’s rarely any technical difficulty in signing on. As long as you can find the staging area, you can join the effort, with no passwords or downloads required, and that’s an important feature. First responders are working in situations of extreme urgency and chaos, and as a result, they end up using the most reliable and universal systems they can find. If that means forgoing the latest tech, it might be worth the tradeoff.

T.C. Sottek provided additional reporting for this article.