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Virginia Earthquake Highlights Public Safety Communications Needs

Yesterday’s 5.8-magnitude earthquake that originated in central Virginia disrupted cell phone networks for several hours on Tuesday afternoon along much of the east coast. The event evoked memories of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which clogged networks on a much larger scale. Since public safety and commercial networks operate on the same spectrum the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a statement asking the public to utilize text messaging and email to communicate to keep the lines open for emergency responders.

This random event highlights the need for state and local public safety authorities to have increased capacity for communications. ICMA, the Big 7, and other organizations have worked to support initiatives to allocate the D-block portion of the radio spectrum to state and local public safety. The D-block would provide public safety with an additional dedicated 10-MHz of spectrum, which would support increased capacity in data and video technology as well as the ability to send and receive calls at any time.

The random nature of yesterday’s event proved that the need for increased public safety communications capacity can come at any time, and in any form. Without the D-block allocation, the next potential incident could bring about similar results and may lead to less effective disaster response.  


Curtis Shaffer

Hanover County, VA (40 mi from epicenter) experienced a tremendous number of citizen calls immediately after the earthquake, overloading our inbound 911 line capacity as well as staff resources available to receive emergency calls. Cellular users reported they were unable to access cellular networks as those networks were also overloaded. Many citizens reported that they were able to check the welfare of loved ones by using text and/or email. I wonder how the proposed changes of the current 911 network topology to allow deployment of NextGen 911 might improve citizen access to 911 services.

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