Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 7, 2021.

Q&A: 20 YEARS AFTER 9/11
Emergency Communications Evolution

A new episode of The NFPA Podcast discusses one of 9/11’s most significant impacts—a dedicated broadband network for first responders known as FirstNet


INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY ROBBY DAWSON. INTRODUCTION BY JESSE ROMAN.


For many of us old enough to remember the experience of living through September 11, 2001, it’s almost impossible to believe that it took place 20 years ago this week. The memories of that day are so vividly etched, the emotions still so visceral, that it if you sit with it for a moment—as so many people are doing this month—it can feel like barely any time has passed at all. 

For members of the US fire service, it’s a day that resonates even harder. Of the 2,753 people killed when two planes were intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, more that 400 were emergency responders, including 343 firefighters. An additional 184 people were killed in the attack on the Pentagon near Washington, DC, and 40 passenger and crew members died when a fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in rural Pennsylvania. 

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s natural to reflect on the profound loss of that day, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t also consider how the tragedy has shaped the fire service over the past two decades in so many important ways. 

RELATED: Read an article about the four ways 9/11 changed fire and life safety forever

In a new episode of The NFPA Podcast, we take a look at some of 9/11’s lasting impacts, starting with how the tragedy served as the catalyst to revolutionize how responders communicate during large-scale incidents. The episode also includes discussions with Dr. Denis Onieal, former deputy US fire administrator, and Ron Sarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, who reflect on their own experiences during and after 9/11 and its lasting impacts on the fire service.

To discuss the evolution of emergency communications, we invited Gary McCarraher, a senior public safety advisor for the FirstNet Authority. The authority oversees FirstNet, a national broadband network exclusively for first responders, which was directly born from the events of 9/11. 

As response to the 9/11 attacks unfolded, firefighters and police at the World Trade Center faced serious challenges trying to communicate. Radio traffic during the incident increased five times over normal levels, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and within minutes of the planes hitting the towers, a huge spike in cellphone traffic overloaded the city’s networks. In an article published on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Associated Press called the incident “a convergence of the worst possible problems in communication technology … that left many commanders and firefighters unable to talk to each other. Firefighters in the stairwells couldn’t hear the evacuation order, and as a result, 343 died.”

Fixing these problems by creating a broadband network solely for first responders was one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, a federal government–led effort to investigate the attacks and aftermath. The purpose of FirstNet is to ensure that first responders will always have uninterrupted, interoperable communications no matter where they are in the country and no matter how flooded networks get with civilian cellphone and radio traffic.

In 2012, after nearly a decade of lobbying, Congress finally allotted 20 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum and nearly $7 billion for the FirstNet project. In 2017, the authority that oversees FirstNet awarded a 25-year contract to AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications company. As part of the deal, AT&T agreed to spend about $40 billion over the life of the contract to build, deploy, operate, and maintain the network. FirstNet launched officially in 2018 and had reached 1 million device connections by the end of 2019. 

Below is an edited excerpt of the podcast discussion with McCarraher, who before FirstNet worked in the fire service for 45 years, including as a fire chief and as a local emergency management director. The full interview is available to listen to at nfpa.org/podcasts—or wherever you get your podcasts.


How does FirstNet work? 

Our devices run on what is referred to as Band 14 [the 20 MHz spectrum licensed specifically for First Net]. In our contract with AT&T, not only did they agree to build out a network with Band 14 on it, but they also gave us access to all their commercial bands with priority and preemption. So what happens is, if you think of LTE and broadband as a pipeline, once a pipeline gets clogged with traffic, non-FirstNet users get pushed off of that pipeline so that public safety can use it.

 A video from AT&T explains what FirstNet is.  YOUTUBE

How has it been built and expanded?

Between 2012 and 2018, the FirstNet authority, which oversees FirstNet, did a lot of things but probably the most important work was to go to all 50 states and six US territories and ask, “Where do you need coverage?” One of the hallmarks of the FirstNet program is to provide coverage where public safety works, not necessarily where there’s a commercial viability, because those are two different things. In the state of Maine, for instance, they’re putting up over 130 tower locations because there wasn’t great coverage. These were places that never had broadband coverage before. 

How else have you expanded first responder coverage? 

In addition to towers, we’ve invested in a fleet of deployables that can provide reliable coverage if, for example, you’re out at a remote wildland fire. We can send deployables out and light up areas so that they can use LTE and broadband in the wildland efforts. 

What are deployables?

They are essentially mobile towers. The one that started out the gate was called a “sat colt.” It has a satellite on a truck, and it has the LTE radio system on it. We also have tethered unmanned aerial vehicles [fit with cellular signals] that can go up and provide coverage in a larger footprint because they’re higher in the sky. We have a blimp that was deployed during the hurricane season last year for the first time. That uses technology that was developed in the Gulf War, so these things are literally bulletproof and can stay up in the sky for quite some time to provide good coverage for public safety. 

And then we have just rolled out this new thing called compact rapid deployables. They fit on a trailer, they’ll fit in a freight elevator. So if you want to take them to the top of a building, you could do that. And you can leave them on a on a pickup truck and use them. If you’re running a wildfire or chasing a fire, you can keep coverage moving. You can leave it on a truck and use it that way. So as technology evolves, we’re finding some really creative ways to make sure that public safety stays connected. 

Do you have any success stories?

One I like to tell is about a friend of mine who is the fire chief in Burlington, Vermont. Every Memorial Day they have a marathon in the city, and a couple of years ago a weather front came through at the beginning of the marathon. We just so happened to give some FirstNet demo devices out to the fire department staff for testing, and as the weather front came through, they had to stop the race and put everybody into cover.

The chief’s wife was about to run in the race, so he was trying to call her and inform her about this storm, but he couldn’t get through because the networks were clogged. So the deputy chief handed the fire chief a FirstNet device and said, “Try this,” and it worked. It was an example of even when all of the carriers are tied up, the FirstNet network will work. A similar thing occurred [during the breach of the US Capitol building] in DC on January 6th. The network worked as promised. 

What’s coming up in the future?

When I was working in my last few years as a fire chief, they were talking about LTE push-to-talk, and I said, “That’s a generation away. My kids will have kids before that happens.” But I can tell you that can happen today. It’s all moving at breakneck speed. Situational awareness is also going to be incredible. We’re currently coming out with technologies called Z axis, which can help triangulate the exact location of a person. Most mapping software or applications you have today have just X and Y axes on a flat plane, which isn’t really helpful. When you’re trying to locate a firefighter, you need that third dimension. 

AT&T has just come out with its first Z axis application, and while it’s not ready for primetime yet, it’s remarkable because it’s almost here and it’s exclusively for public safety. I could see these Z axis devices being baked into the firefighter self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), sort of like the PASS device. I hope with the speed that everything’s moving, you’ll see it soon.


ROBBY DAWSON is the southeast regional director at NFPA. JESSE ROMAN is the senior editor for NFPA Journal and host of The NFPA Podcast. Top photograph: FEMA