In one of its new commercials, Sprint Nextel cheekily imagines how firefighters might use the company’s new walkie-talkies to run Congress. Riffing on the fantasy, Slate complains about the sort of laws this process might lead to. But for PaperTrail, the commercial recalled a hard reality: Any gathering of firefighters from different jurisdictions, legislatively minded or not, likely wouldn’t be able to use their radios to communicate.
This problem, officially known as a lack of interoperability, has plagued first responders for years. In a crisis, the police, for example, often can’t talk to their counterparts from other towns, to the firefighters, or to the federal responders, because of old equipment and little coordination.
The issue gained political traction after 9/11, when breakdowns in public safety communications garnered a lot of attention. (Overburdened frequencies kept firefighters from hearing radioed orders to evacuate the buildings, for instance.) Since then the federal government has spent billions of dollars on emergency communications; the Public Safety Interoperable Communications grant program alone is spreading $1 billion across the country, mostly for new equipment. And at a recent Congressional hearing, the assistant administrator of Homeland Security’s grants program said that interoperable communications suck up the greatest percentage of funds from the main Homeland Security Grant Program.
Sprint, in a bit of synchronicity, is well-aware of this issue and actually stands to profit from interoperable solutions. In January, the company asked the Obama administration to consider spending $2 billion on trucks packed with communications equipment that could reach an emergency within four hours, and two weeks ago, the Sprint Emergency Response Team, which “provides wireless telecommunications equipment, infrastructure and operations support” to governments across the country, demonstrated its interoperable equipment in a tornado-response simulation.