Chris Russo, founder of ELERTS CorporationEmergency communication remains a challenge ten years after 9/11

Published 9 September 2011

Chris Russo, a twenty-five year firefighting veteran, a 9/11 first responder, and the founder of ELERTS Corporation, discusses the challenges first responders face in communicating with each other in major disasters, the lack of progress made to create an inter-operable system for emergency responders, and how technology is changing how authorities communicate and interact with the public during major disasters

Chris Russo, founder of ELERTS Corporation // Source: ELERTS

Homeland Security NewsWire: In your experience assisting with the 9/11 recovery efforts, what weaknesses did the attacks expose in terms of U.S. disaster response, particularly emergency communication and coordination?

Chris Russo: I have over twenty-five years of experience in fire services and public safety. Our public safety communication systems were never more challenged than on September 11, when several weaknesses were exposed:

Interoperability between public safety agencies was inadequate, and in many cases non-existent. The first responders on the scene at Ground Zero arrived from many different agencies and geographical jurisdictions. We were severely hampered by not being able to communicate with each other, as radio systems did not allow for inter-agency communications.

New York City’s Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) were located in the basement area of the office buildings, leaving them vulnerable to loss of access due to an extraordinary debris field and the collapse of structures. The communication systems were located in the EOCs and were also lost. Back-up power and generators were also located below ground making them inaccessible as well.

There were some redundant communications systems, but in some cases, they were located alongside the primary systems and subsequently lost in the collapse. Many communications systems are designed with a redundancy, but it is based on routine loss, not catastrophic loss of infrastructure.

There was no way to communicate with the general public in the affected areas to provide them with instructions. People in the tower buildings were unable to get information about what to do, how to escape and as a result, many lost their lives.

Whether the tragic events of 9/11 occurred in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, or any other city that had multiple millions of people in it, emergency response and communications would have been overwhelmed and would have underserved the first responders and citizens in harm’s way.

9/11 was a massive wake-up call that our public safety communications were grossly inadequate for managing catastrophic events, with multiple agencies responding to the crisis.

HSNW: As a follow-up, in the ten years since the attacks, what measures have been implemented to assist information sharing between local and state agencies as well as emergency communications with residents during disasters?

CR: In the last ten years there have been several attempts at correcting the interoperability problem. However, little progress has been made to date. Major improvements in technology and a willingness to involve the public as part of the solution are positive steps