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THE STORM [home page]
the communications breakdown

Four years after 9/11, why did a major city like New Orleans have a failure of virtually all communication systems in the Katrina disaster? What are the tasks facing government for building resilient, interoperable systems so that first responders can talk to each other the next time disaster strikes?

Commenting here are: Michael Brown, director of FEMA (2003-2005); Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (2002-2005); Warren Rudman, co-chair of the National Security Commission (1999); Richard Clarke, National Security Council (1992-2003); and Richard Falkenrath, Homeland Security adviser (2001-2005). These excerpts are drawn from their full interviews with FRONTLINE.


FEMA director (2003-2005)

Michael Brown

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… What was the impact of the failing communication systems throughout the crisis?

Devastating. … I think what it shows is that our focus on communications needs to get beyond the concept of interoperable communications, which is important. … [But] how do we communicate when the infrastructure is gone?

Well, [former DHS] Secretary [Tom] Ridge told me that post-crisis communications, emergency systems was something that they had.

FEMA does have that. The problem is FEMA doesn't have enough of it. For example, we had our facility down there, called Red October, that we can move around, has satellite communications ability … But FEMA has one Red October. We probably need a lot more of them. …


Secretary, Department of Homeland Security (2002-2005)

Tom Ridge

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… Here we are four years after 9/11, and we still don't have robust, interoperable communications. Why?

… The department has set standards for post-incident communications, interoperable communications, and there's technology moving in that direction. Ultimately a nationwide system, I think, is the goal of all the emergency responders, but it will take time to develop.

There is not only an enormous price tag associated with it, but overcoming the jurisdiction of disputes and the technology applications is going to take a little bit of time. But there it's not just federal leadership that's required. There you need the governors and the mayors, as they have received hundreds of millions of dollars for communications equipment over the past couple of years, to engage their first-responder community in developing interoperable communications.

The department sets the standards, it sends the money, and in time you'll see, slowly but surely, this system is being developed.

Why does it take so long?

I think you still have technology challenges. We still haven't agreed on a set of standards that would drive the private sector. And frankly, certain users of traditional equipment have a good relationship with a vendor, the good relationship with the provider that continues to this day. …

The Public Safety Wireless Network says that three states -- Delaware, Michigan, North Carolina -- have mature or widespread interoperability.


If Delaware, Michigan and North Carolina can do it, why can't the rest of the country?

Maybe you should ask them. And that was done because of the initiative and leadership at the state and local level.

But the federal government can hold their feet to the fire.

… It's one of the challenges as you … try to create not a federal capability, but a national capability, and to the extent that you can get these governors and their teams -- but I will tell you the momentum is there. …

But that's not going to sound good enough to most Americans who know that we have standards for education, for air quality, airports --

But it took a while for the standards to evolve. When you are dealing with a federal system of governance and loyalty to traditional vendors and suppliers -- and to this date, [there is] not a consensus within the federal government, [also] the state and local government, as to which equipment to use and how to make it interoperable. …


Co-chair, U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (1999)

Warren Rudman

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… You've got to have police, fire, other first respondents being able to have a mode to talk to each other. Can't do that, can't get anything done -- I don't care how much equipment you have.

And so, again, who's to blame?

Well, I think the whole government's to blame. Congress is to blame; the administration's to blame.

But whenever everybody's to blame, nothing gets done.

Yeah. That's just the way it is. I think if there had been strong leadership either in the Congress or in the administration or at DHS to say, "This is something we have to get done," it probably would get done.

But nobody seems to be very agitated about it. You know, government disappoints me sometimes, and this is one of the times it disappoints me. …

One answer that I heard over and over again from former, recent officials of DHS was that in our federal system, it's the responsibility of localities to do as they see fit. They're on the ground; they should do what they think is right for their area, and that it would be -- and this was the word used -- "Orwellian" for us to impose standards.

Well, that's baloney. We impose standards on airports, on interstate highways, on bridges. We impose standards on harbors. We impose standards on almost everything. And the federal government, if it's going to give out money, has a right to demand standards. Somebody's saying they can't impose standards for interoperability of radio equipment? I just don't buy into that. …


National Security Council (1992-2003)

Richard Clarke

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… There were two things that we tried to do immediately after 9/11. The first was to allow emergency responders to use cell phones. The reason they couldn't use cell phones on 9/11 was that everyone was trying to use cell phones, and therefore they couldn't get through.

So we tried to change the rules so that emergency responders' telephones would bump other telephone calls and have priority getting through. And that was put in place in Washington, D.C.; it was put in place in New York. And it was supposed to be spread out nationwide, but the program stalled after the first few cities were done.


Many of the phone companies don't like the idea. Verizon in particular has resisted the program for a variety of reasons that they know best. …

So this is a tension that's gone on out of view of the public, that Verizon has resisted, other companies have resisted, presumably.

Some companies have been very cooperative, and in some cities, as a result of three or four carriers being cooperative, you can get through if you're a policeman or a fireman with a cell phone. …

The other thing that we tried to do after 9/11 was to get emergency responders in a metropolitan area all working on the same frequency. And the problem that we quickly ran into was that different departments in different jurisdictions had radio sets that were physically unable to talk to each other because of the chips that were in them, number one.

Number two, the available radio spectrum was assigned to television stations, cab drivers, railroads, people who really didn't need them anymore. Television stations were assigned two channels each, one for regular TV and one for high-definition, so a lot of the spectrum was being sucked up. Railroads that are now using fiber-optic cable for communication nonetheless still had radio spectrum. Taxi drivers, who use cell phones now, still had radio spectrum. And only the federal government through the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] can reassign radio spectrum. And it's very, very difficult to do that because of the vested interests. …

But to get everybody on the same channel, doesn't that mean that they all come to the same part of the spectrum?

It does. And one city at least that I know has been able to do this. … The city of Baltimore and the six surrounding jurisdictions, the six surrounding counties, reached agreement on one frequency that they would use in an emergency for all fire departments, all police departments, all ambulances in the city and the six surrounding jurisdictions.

They then went out and bought radios that could do that. And so in the Baltimore metropolitan area, if there's an emergency, there can be one command post, and they can bring in fire and police from the suburbs into the city and all be able to talk to each other. Baltimore did it, but almost no other city did.

The effort to get others cities in the same shape as Baltimore just sort of faded?

No. What happened was the Congress decided that they would give what little money they appropriated to cities through the state governments, and that the state governments and the cities could decide how they wanted to spend the money for homeland security. Congress never said, "You first have to get your radios to talk to each other, and then after you've spent the money on that, then you can spend it on your pet projects." There was no requirement that these things had to be done first.

As a result, we have cities that bought bulletproof vests for canine patrols, so that we have dogs with bulletproof vests. We have cities that bought air-conditioned garbage trucks with homeland security money without ever solving their communications problems. …


Homeland Security adviser (2001-2005)

Richard Falkenrath

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… Let's be very clear about communications. The federal government does not procure radios and communications for state and local agencies. It has handed out a lot of money. In my personal opinion, it has handed out that money with far too few conditions on how the state and local agencies spend it.

That is as they [state and local agencies] like it. They would rather not have those conditions, and the Congress does not want to impose a lot of conditions. … And frankly, the administration hasn't really proposed it, because it's politically unpopular, which I regret. The fact is, there are many areas in the country that do not have fully interoperable and resilient communication systems, and it's despite the fact that they're getting money from the federal government, and it is basically because they are spending money on incompatible, nonresilient communication systems. …

What's the thinking in the White House today about setting these goals?

The thinking now is that there should be goals. There is a presidential directive that says there will be goals. The secretary of homeland security is assigned the responsibility for developing them. A draft has been released. And it's just this bureaucratic process that's taking a very long time. The presidential directive to do this was signed, I think, in early 2004. …

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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