Interstate Highway System @ 50:
Lessons for Public Safety Communications
Today is the 50th birthday of the Interstate Highway System, a brilliant accomplishment of the Eisenhower Administration. Prior to this states had primary responsibility for road planning with some federal support. Eisenhower realized that the only way to build a true national system with modern roads, something actually started in Nazi Germany pre-WWII, was to have national leadership. And the only was to get national leadership was to address the state/federal relationship. A clever compromise was offerred: states would get 90% federal financing of interstate highways if they adhered to federal plans on network design and technical standards. There was no preemption of states' rights and the Tenth Amendment was respected.
So why are we discussing this here? A major problem in public safety communications is the "Tower of Babel" of the thousands of independent public safety agencies coast to coast. They feel they can select their own uniforms, their own guns, and their own radio systems. Under our federal system and the Tenth Amendment they can! Public safety regularly demands more spectrum to solve the problem and FCC regularly caves in throwing more spectrum to the public safety community, increasingly attaching some conditions requiring some marginal improvement in interoperability in the new band. But adding new bands, just adds to the Tower of Babel. Have things really improved since the Air Florida crash in 1982. Here is an account from a presention to FCC:
The of Air Florida flight 90 created a tremendous outpouring of public safety response to that horrific event. And, unfortunately, it didn't go well. It was "communications gridlock to the nth degree. Everybody that was there had good intentions, everybody that was there wanted to do good. But everybody that was there couldn't talk to each other.
Was 9/11 almost 20 years later any better?
Throwing spectrum at the problem doesn't get at the root cause: no one is in charge here. Don't blame FCC this time, there is little it can do under pressure from local public safety, usually urged on by their major equipment supplier(s), to take a certain nearterm action that local governments sincerely believe will be marginally effective.
We urgently need a national plan from national leadership, not endless negotiation with thousands of jurisdictions. If that was the way the Intersate Highway System was designed we wouldn't have what we know today. I believe that the only way out of this mess is for the Federal Government to assume a role in public safety communications similar to the one it took in highways - pay most of the costs in exchange to getting control. A billion dollars here and there won't do the job. The cost of building a new public safety radio system that really works and is interoperable is probably in the $20-50 billion range. This is a lot of money! But compared to what is being spent on other aspects of national security and homeland security it isn't so high. I really think that the Tower of Babel will continue into the foreseeable future unless such bold action is taken.