What’s up with WhatsApp for emergency communications?

April 12, 2016
When terror struck Brussels, one thing that quickly became evident was how much more needs to be done to ensure effective and efficient communications for first responders worldwide. In its aftermath, various media sources reported that Brussels police were forced to use WhatsApp Messenger to communicate with one another in the aftermath of the attacks, and that widespread communication problems hampered emergency services.

Op-Ed by Joe Mazzarella, senior vice president and chief legal counsel, board member, Mutualink

When terror struck Brussels, one thing that quickly became evident was how much more needs to be done to ensure effective and efficient communications for first responders worldwide. In its aftermath, various media sources reported that Brussels police were forced to use WhatsApp Messenger to communicate with one another in the aftermath of the attacks, and that widespread communication problems hampered emergency services.

Commercial mobile networks in the area were overwhelmed by increased traffic and Brussels’ emergency services network, ASTRID, likewise failed, leaving law enforcement unable to connect and collaborate in the chaos. As an instant messaging client for smartphones, WhatsApp may be wonderful for personal communications, but it is hardly sufficient to meet the demands for real-time communications in the midst of a life-critical crisis.

Unfortunately, a lack of reliable emergency communications systems is not unique to Brussels. If a large scale terrorist attack were to happen on U.S. soil tomorrow, there is a significant risk that similar failures would occur. In fact, in countless cases since 9/11, communications failures coupled with the continuing inability to interoperate with partner responder agencies during major emergencies have been reported as a serious issue in after action reports.

The range includes failures in communications and interoperability during Hurricane Katrina, the Deep Horizon Spill, the Aurora Theater shooting, the Washington Navy Yard shooting, and L’Enfant Train Station Fire, among others. Fortunately, there are simple, quick, cost-effective, and uncontroversial steps that can be taken today that would greatly enhance our ability to respond more effectively to terror attacks.

When terror strikes, an effective emergency response requires massive cooperation and information sharing among law enforcement agencies and federal, state and local agencies to eliminate the threat and minimize causalities. First responders must be able to communicate in real time with relevant parties for ongoing assessment and rapid decision-making during unfolding situations.

In these scenarios, information is at a premium and every moment of uncertainty, confusion, delay, or indecision can inevitably lead to an increased number of injuries and deaths. With real-time situational awareness and coordination being perhaps the most critical components of a first-response effort, there is no greater truism than “time saved is lives saved.”

One of our biggest obstacles is a surprisingly simple one – public safety officials and government entities cannot effectively communicate with each other (interoperate) in real time during an emergency. Sadly, this crucial functional deficit was identified long ago in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

In the intervening fifteen years, tens of billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on new digital radio communications systems based on the premise of improving interoperability, but in reality these new systems never delivered on their primary mission, at least not in any meaningful way.

In the United States, initiatives such as FirstNet and the DHS Interoperable Communications Act represent earnest attempts to remedy this persistent problem and are positive steps in the right direction. With FirstNet, congested commercial mobile networks, like those experienced in Brussels, would no longer be needed. Instead, a dedicated private public safety broadband network similar to commercial mobile networks will be available exclusively to first responders.

With FirstNet, a broad range of new applications and interactive services will furnish first responders with cutting-edge capabilities in the field that vastly exceed the limited voice communications now provided by legacy radio communications systems. Still, more must be done – and can be done now without much heavy lifting or cost.

Proven, commercially available solutions for communications interoperability are at our disposal. DHS maintains a list of Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technologies (QUATTs), which have already undergone a rigorous review and testing process under the SAFETY Act (Support Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technology). Furthermore, DHS certifies a list of “Approved Products for Homeland Security,” which are ready to be deployed in defense of our homeland, but remain inexplicably underutilized. These technologies enable secure bridging of public safety agency communication systems with partners and critical infrastructure entities on demand, providing instant, on-demand collaboration using existing systems. In fact, these technologies are used extensively in select parts of the country by hundreds of state and local agencies, but still far too few.

Increased deployment of these technologies would result in secure communications among police, fire, and EMS, as well as with thousands of local partner agencies that sit on the front line of terror in America – such as hospitals, transit authorities, and utilities. We would all do well to remind ourselves that our mission is to protect Main Street, U.S.A., with an urgency commensurate with the serious threats confronting our communities and our citizens. There is no greater imperative. It is simply unacceptable for police and other emergency responders to rely on consumer-grade smartphone apps for emergency communications, when life-saving technology advancements are available today.

Joseph Mazzarella serves as Mutualink’s Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Counsel. Mr. Mazzarella, in addition to being responsible for the management of Mutualink’s legal and governmental affairs, serves in key operations management and business development roles. Mr. Mazzarella has over 20 years of corporate, finance, M&A, licensing and IP law experience. Mr. Mazzarella also has in-depth knowledge and experience in the high tech sector, ranging from consumer and enterprise based software development, advanced wireless network and location technologies, and communications. He also serves as a member of Mutualink’s Board of Directors.

Mutualink Inc. has developed an interoperable communications platform that enables community-wide multimedia sharing of radio, voice, text, video, data files and telephone communications in a secure environment. Mutualink’s system is currently deployed by hundreds of public and private entities worldwide, including homeland security and defense installations, NATO Special Operations Forces, police and fire departments, transit authorities, hospitals, schools, universities, shopping malls, casinos, and more. Mutualink’s technology is on the “Approved Products List” for both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Defense. Mutualink is a privately-held company headquartered in Wallingford, Conn., with R&D facilities in Westford, Mass., Allen, Texas and Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and Defense Services office near Washington, DC. For more information please visit www.mutualink.net.

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