Sometimes it takes a disaster to make people communicate

You pay attention long enough and things start to repeat themselves.

Aug 1st, 2002

by John Keller, chief editor
Military & Aerospace Electronics

You pay attention long enough and things start to repeat themselves. The U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983 today stands as a watershed event in prodding American military planners to pay more attention to communications system interoperability.

With that in mind, I believe in the future we will look back on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a similarly pivotal event that will have made civilian police, fire, and disaster-recovery agencies take a long hard look at the shortcomings of their own communications systems.

Many of us remember the Grenada invasion 19 years ago. President Ronald Reagan had been in office for just two years. A bloody coup in Grenada had installed a communist leader allied with Fidel Castro's Cuba. Perceived threats to U.S. citizens attending a medical school in Grenada gave Reagan a compelling reason to use military might not only to rescue American citizens, but also to stamp out a communist government in this hemisphere that was openly hostile to U.S. interests.

That was the good news. The things I remember most about U.S. intervention in Grenada, however, were the military operation's shortcomings. In 1983 the Reagan defense buildup had yet to mature, and much of the U.S. military's electronics was 1960s and '70s-vintage equipment that had been designed for the Vietnam War. The kinds of digital communications that we know today was virtually unheard of, communications networking was cumbersome and difficult to use, the military services used widely different communications radios, and members of the separate services had a hard time communicating with one another as a matter of routine.

During the Grenada operation, U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six members reportedly lost their radio somehow during a daring helicopter-borne assault on the Governor-General Paul Scoon's mansion. Although the SEALs reportedly fought off several counter-attacks on the mansion, contemporary accounts have it that the SEALs eventually needed fire support, yet were unable to contact the operation's command staff aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Guam offshore. The SEAL commandos reportedly used the telephone inside the mansion to place a credit-card call back to Fort Bragg, N.C., and asked the watch officer to contact the Guam to request fire support.

While this incident in itself did not point out shortcomings in U.S. communications interoperability of the day, it certainly underscored the need to give American fighting forces the ability contact a wide variety of command echelons in all the different services.

These kinds of lessons of Grenada did not fall on deaf ears. The aftermath of the operation led to deployment of then-advanced communications systems such as the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System, otherwise known as SINCGARS, the Mobile Subscriber Equipment, and the MILSTAR communications satellites.

Eight years after the Grenada invasion, communications among the many U.S. combat units during the Persian Gulf War was vastly improved; one of the big shortcomings of that conflict was a relative lack of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, but that's another story. The point is that Grenada highlighted weaknesses in U.S. military electronic communications that leaders subsequently strengthened.

Sept. 11 is shaping up to be the latest version of Grenada for U.S. fire, police, and rescue departments. The New York Times ran an important story last month about critical radio problems that New York City firefighters had as they tried in vain to save the World Trade Center towers after terrorists smashed jetliners into the two skyscrapers.

The Times story, by Jim Dwyer, Kevin Flynn, and Ford Fessenden (http://www. nytimes.com/2002/07/07/nyregion/07EMER.html), points out that New York police, who were using a different radio system from the firefighters, issued warnings of the imminent collapse of the south tower 21 minutes before the massive structure smashed to the ground. "... most firefighters never heard those warnings or earlier orders to get out," the story says. "Their radio system failed frequently that morning. Even if the radio network had been reliable, it was not linked to the police system. And the police and fire commanders guiding the rescue efforts did not talk to one another during the crisis."

The radio problems extended far beyond the inability of police and firefighters to keep in touch on their mobile radios. Inside the Twin Towers, radios worked sporadically, or not at all; some of the firefighters' radios, in fact, were 15 years old and outdated, The Times reported. Furthermore, The Times story points out that several radio repeaters, which might have amplified signals inside the World Trade Center buildings and enabled more firefighters to use their radios, failed to operate.

"From the first moments to the last, however," The Times story sums up, "their efforts were plagued by failures of communication, command, and control." Leaders of the New York police and fire departments are concluding that "major changes are needed." I couldn't agree more. "It's a disgrace," The Times quoted firefighter Steve Modica. "The police are talking to each other. It's a no-brainer: Get us what they're using. We send people to the moon, and you mean to tell me a firefighter can't talk to a guy two floors above him?"

A disaster of the magnitude of the Sept. 11 attacks clearly highlights that municipal emergency services authorities need to be able to talk to one another during big emergencies. If New York firefighters had radios similar to their city police counterparts, and if fire commanders on the scene were in radio contact with police commanders — two big ifs — then perhaps as many as 121 firefighters might be alive today. Instead, they died in the Twin Towers collapse, The Times story suggests.

City, county, and state emergency services personnel have a hard lesson to learn from the military in Grenada, and from New York City on 9-11. Radios are not enough. They need to set forth plans and carry them out on how they can best communicate with one another across departmental and jurisdictional lines to carry out their missions. Then they need to find the money to buy equipment adequate for the job. This is no small task, but it needs to be done, nonetheless.

Short of meshing and improving civil radio communications in New York and places like it, perhaps the telephone calling card may come to the rescue again. I'll bet it didn't occur to anyone on the scene, but imagine if a New York police officer who got the radio evacuation order had simply stepped into a phone booth and called 911. I wonder how many more of those firefighters might have made it out alive.

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