7.1 COMMUNICATION GOALS
The key to success in any major incident is the ability of the communications effort to succeed. Historically, communications have been difficult in any major incident. This chapter identifies the existing communication difficulties that are encountered during major emergencies (such as the 1995 wildfires), examines the causes of such difficulties, and provides short and long term recommendations to resolve these issues.
7.2 RADIO COMMUNICATION
7.2.1 Existing Communications Conditions and Difficulties
Existing communications is scattered throughout the various radio frequency spectra. Fire departments operate mostly on Low Band VHF, non-repeated, with limited mobile coverage and very limited portable coverage, but with very good ability for inter-operation. However, this band is quickly overwhelmed during major incidents. A few use High Band VHF or 400 MHz. They have better coverage and are generally not overwhelmed, but have little, if any, ability for inter-operation.
Ambulance companies (other than those which are part of fire departments) are primarily on High Band VHF, that has limited mobile coverage, but very good ability for inter-operation. However, this can be overwhelmed during major incidents. Like fire departments, several use 400 MHz.
Town agencies use High Band, 400 MHz and 800 MHz-trunked. Coverage is good town-wide, but has limited ability for inter-operation. County agencies (other than police departments) use a High Band VHF system with county-wide coverage, also with limited ability for inter-operation. Many agencies will become part of Suffolk County Police Department's 800 MHz system in the future.
Police departments operate on, or will have access to, the Suffolk County Police Department 800 MHz-trunked system. This system has excellent mobile coverage and good ability for inter-operation. This system should not be overwhelmed by significant events.
State agencies use High Band VHF. Coverage can be state-wide, but the ability for inter-operation is limited to state agencies. Federal agencies use High Band VHF, 400 MHz, 800 MHz and 900 MHz with no known ability for inter-operation.
7.2.2 Causes of Communications Difficulties
During major emergencies, numerous fire departments, police departments, town, County and State agencies, as well as other support entities, are required to manage the incident. Hundreds of apparatus, units and portable radios are all vying for the limited "air time". This competition leads to missed and distorted messages and less than efficient use of resources, often exacerbating the problems of already taxed communications and frustration of the users. In some cases, urgent requests for help are delayed, garbled or unable to be acknowledged.
Numerous communications systems, as identified in Section 7.2.1, have been developed by the different agencies that handle disaster situations to meet their individual agency requirements, and available financial resources. Although these varying systems are adequate for the routine functioning of a respective agency, they can cause complications when trying to talk to an "outside" organization.
The results of these two situations are that the numerous components critical to successfully concluding an emergency are not generally well coordinated due to these communication problems.
7.3 FUTURE ENHANCEMENT OF COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS
There is a need to develop a solution to the communication problems identified in this chapter to ensure all agencies involved in emergency situations are able to communicate effectively with all parties. The Suffolk County Police Department appears to have the best system currently available in relation to coverage, reliability and inter-operability. Their willingness to share a portion of this system's resources and abilities with other municipal agencies makes it the most likely candidate for reliable communications among multiple agencies, however, it is important to remember the following facts about this new system:
1. If all fire departments and emergency medical service (EMS) agencies were to regularly access the system as designed, it would be quickly overwhelmed during routine operations. Public safety would be compromised on a daily basis.
2. There are not enough 800 MHz channels available to support a single county-wide trunked system for all agencies/disciplines (fire departments, police departments, EMS, and local government).
Therefore specific recommendations are made in the following subsection to optimize future communications in emergency situations.
7.R.1 Short Term (Immediate) Recommendations
An interim, cost effective solution must be forthcoming to have reliable communications, at least for all key personnel during significant emergencies. The following actions are recommended: