For a Few Mhz more: Spectrum and Emergency Responders

What could emergency responders do with a little more spectrum, a lot more money and a healthy assist from modern technology?

To begin with, they could set up effortless communication between local emergency responders and out-of-towners who are called in for a major disaster but whose equipment works on a different frequency, said Chris Essid, director of the Homeland Security Department's Office of Emergency Communications.

A large block of communication spectrum could also enable standardized nationwide systems and protocols so responders' tools would look the same from one county to the next and radios from one county could simply roam onto the next county's network, according to Essid, who was speaking at a Wilson Center for International Scholars event focused on how private sector technologies could aid emergency responders.

More spectrum and standardized equipment would also allow police and firefighters to better utilize new technologies, panelists at the event said, such as sensors that tell firefighters which floors of a building are on fire and what chemicals are present there; heat sensors that tell police where a suspect is hiding in a darkened house and space-age band aids that take an injured person's vital signs and match them with a photo and name so family members are able not only to track the victim to a particular hospital or shelter but also to find out how they're doing.

New technology could even push mapping data about nearby fire hydrants and building layouts directly to screens on firefighters masks, panelists said.

There's been a push in Congress since soon after communication difficulties hampered the 9/11 response to reserve a portion of spectrum for a national public safety broadband network. So far, though, those efforts have been unsuccessful. Currently law requires that portion of spectrum, known as Block D to be auctioned off to commercial bidders.