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Post-9/11 communications

Researchers aim to make world safer through technology

Paul Kolodzy is director of the WINSEC program at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Paul Kolodzy is director of the WINSEC program at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Jeff Zelevansky, Associated Press

HOBOKEN, N.J. — Perched on a hilltop campus across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Paul Kolodzy sees more than New York's hulking grandeur and the gap where the World Trade Center once towered. He sees innumerable places where wireless technologies ought to be making everyone safer.

Those ferries on the river? Let's give them satellite transponders that could get important data if radio systems become swamped in a crisis. That Port Authority building? Let's send it information with a laser.

And, says Kolodzy, why not give authorities in different agencies a way to share encrypted information instantly through whatever kinds of networks — like radio, cell phone, Wi-Fi — are available to them at any given moment.

Kolodzy and other researchers are testing these ideas at the Stevens Institute of Technology's Wireless Network Security Center with one main goal: avoiding the communications knots that have plagued emergency responders for years and glared on Sept. 11, 2001.

Fire and police officials with radios on different frequencies had trouble coordinating actions. Overwhelmed and weak radio transmissions kept commanders from tracking firefighters inside the World Trade Center and warning them the towers were about to collapse.

There has since been little improvement in the communications systems authorities would need in another catastrophe of such magnitude.

Key airwave frequencies remain congested. Newer radio equipment is expensive and problematic. Different emergency agencies communicate not only on different frequencies but with different terminology.

Overall, agencies are getting better at jointly planning how to handle regional emergencies, but that is a time-consuming slog.

"Don't forget: We're government, and government doesn't move that fast," said Vincent Stile, police radio director in Suffolk County, N.Y., and president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Even so, in a world where conversations, shopping transactions, e-mails and other bits of our digital existence routinely flit across the airwaves, technology experts say there should be better solutions for situations with lives at stake.

Stevens' engineers hope to weave several network technologies into one system that would let public-safety officials get a clearer sense of unfolding emergencies and communicate better with authorities in neighboring jurisdictions.

Inside the second-floor office of the school's Wireless Network Security Center, engineer Jason Evans clicks on a laptop to show a satellite photo of Hoboken. Stars denoting campus police cars move on the screen, tracked in real time as the cops' laptops communicate with wireless computer networks at Stevens and cellular phone networks off campus.

An adjoining laptop shows photos just taken by cameras that are automatically tripped by sensors on fences and at other strategic spots on campus.

"We're trying to link a network of networks," said Kolodzy, who previously served as wireless guru for the Pentagon and the Federal Communications Commission. "There's a huge amount of infrastructure out there. Why can't we somehow exploit existing infrastructure instead of having to build yet another?"

Similarly, some technologists expect big things from "software-defined" radios that could communicate on several different frequencies. A police radio, for example, could be programmed to dodge interference while doubling as a cell phone.

Another flexible technology showing promise is "mesh" or "ad hoc" networking, which was developed in the military. In mesh networks, individual radio devices serve not only as receivers but also as relay points that pass information on to other devices.

So while a firefighter might be too deep in a big building to be able to radio directly back to command officials, in a mesh network he need only be able to reach another firefighter nearby, whose radio could zap a conversation or nugget of data to the next closest radio, and so on until it reaches the intended target.

The setup requires less power and deprives attackers of a centralized target to take down.

"It's like trying to kill an anthill. You can step on as many ants as you want, and it doesn't matter," said Rick Rotondo, a vice president of MeshNetworks Inc., which recently provided the technology to rescue crews in Orange County, Fla.

Mesh networks also can give commanders real-time updates of their users' physical locations, even indoors.

That ability is "sort of the Holy Grail for first responders," said Nader Moayeri, a wireless-group manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "There is nothing like that right now that they have."

By adding special software to off-the-shelf handheld computers with wireless networking cards, Moayeri's team has designed an ad hoc network of devices that let emergency crews talk to each other, share pictures and even make phone calls, using "voice over Internet protocol" technology that translates sound into packets of data.

NIST is developing the technology in order to create standards that all commercial vendors could follow — hopefully to avoid interoperability problems that plague emergency radio communications.

In recent years, many emergency responders have bought "trunked" radio systems, which establish one network that different agencies can use together. But those systems are expensive, sometimes difficult to master and iffy in hilly areas and big buildings.

Plus, they generally transmit in the 800-megahertz band, a frequency already used by mobile phone carriers, primarily Nextel Communications. The resulting interference often deadens public-safety communications.

Nextel is willing to move to other bands and pay for public-safety agencies to realign their frequencies. But those plans are being contested by rival wireless carriers that fear Nextel might unfairly benefit from the spectrum swap.

Another spat in Washington is complicating efforts to give public-safety agencies the 700-megahertz band, which could support new applications such as quick transfers of fingerprints, mug shots and pictures useful in emergencies.

Some TV broadcasters will have to vacate that band, but not until 2006, and only then in markets where 85 percent of households can get digital TV signals.

Consequently, public-safety groups want Congress to put more teeth into the 2006 deadline.

"We've been squeezing as much as we have from the spectrum available to us," said Stile, head of the public-safety communications group. "The 700 band is an area of spectrum that we need desperately."