Improving communications to minimize risk in an emergency

Lessons learned from 9/11 help minimize risk in an emergency

It is now well understood that the lack of a coherent communications system contributed to the severity of the outcome from the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. There were more injuries and more lives lost on that day because first responders and civilians on the site did not have the information that would have helped them to survive.

It was already known that there had been communications shortfalls inside the Towers that limited responders during the 1993 bombing. On that day, 2-way radios did not work properly inside the stairwells and other areas of the buildings. In the wake of that event, radio repeaters had been installed. However, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, the repeater system had never been fully activated and was mostly unutilized that day.

Even if the repeaters had been fully functioning, there were other problems. Firefighters,NYPD officers and Port Authority Police on the scene were using different radio systems operating on different frequencies, leaving them largely unable to connect or communicate with one another. As a result, there was little understanding of what was happening in different parts of the building, or what those outside the building were observing. In addition to hampering the rescue of civilians, the shortfall also resulted in caused many first responders never receiving evacuation orders, and perishing when the Towers collapsed.

Communications between 911 dispatchers and civilians around New York City also fell far short of what was needed that day. The system was simply overwhelmed. In the first18 minutes after the North Tower was struck, more than 3000 calls came into the 911 system. On duty to receive those calls were only about 285 Fire Department, Police Department and Emergency Medical Service dispatchers and operators throughout the city. Beyond being inundated by the volume of calls, none of the operators had enough information about what was occurring on the scene to be able to provide useful assistance to the callers. Some of the callers were inside the Towers, wondering if they should try to evacuate or remain in place – and were told to stay put. Some callers wereeven placed on hold, sometimes more than once.

The lessons learned in the wake of this tragedy should have been able to help us in better preparing for others that occurred in the years after 2001. However, it is a grim truth that every tragic incident is different, making it difficult to understand the full scope of the issues and challenges that may arise. It is also true that in the unfolding of each individual event, there is typically a great deal of chaos, making it even more difficult to mount the most effective response that will minimize risk.

This is certainly the case for active shooter events. Most schools, houses of worship and other mass gathering venues have multiple entrances, hallways and floors; many have several buildings on the premises. Shooters typically move around the facilities throughout the duration of the incident. An initial 911 call may or may not include information about where within the school the shooter is located, but this information willbe useless several minutes later. First responders arriving at the scene may have little to no intelligence about what has transpired, where the shooter is currently located or where there are injured people who need medical attention.

During an active shooter event, every second matters. The extra minutes it could take for officers to find and neutralize the perpetrator could mean the loss of additional lives. With the superior technology we have today, readily available to both places of mass gathering and law enforcement agencies, it is possible to provide first responders with awealth of vital information. This includes live camera views, mapping of the premises, locking and unlocking of doors and more. Today’s technology also enables use of the PA system to address the perpetrator and all the individuals on the premises.

All of these resources give first responders communications capabilities that far outreach those being used on 9/11. With this technology in place, law enforcement agencies can take the lessons learned in the past, and use them to help save lives in the future.

Learn more about today’s life-saving communications technology