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Back to Archives | Back to March 2006 Contents 

Communications: When All Wired and Wireless Telephone Circuits Are Busy: Priority Telecommunication Service for First Responders

By Harlin R. McEwen, Chief of Police (Retired), Ithaca, New York, and Chairman, IACP Communications and Technology Committee

he accessibility of traditional landline telephone circuits and cellular-type mobile services is critical to public safety personnel, particularly in times of major events when the public and emergency responders are competing for the same circuits. It is important for police chiefs and law enforcement administrators to be aware of and use the Government Emergency Tele- phone Service (GETS), the Wireless Priority Service (WPS), and the Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP).

Maintaining communication is critical for first responders to effectively and efficiently manage and respond to daily events and natural disasters or terrorist events. But major events, such as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, or most recently, the devastating hurricanes along the Gulf Coast of the United States, can trigger congestion on landlines and wireless radio (cellular) channels. These incidents often force emergency responders, police, fire and rescue workers, and other national security emergency preparedness (NSEP) personnel to compete with the public for the same congested landline and cellular resources.

Priority Services for Emergency Responders
The National Communications System (NCS), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Preparedness Directorate, offers priority communications ser- vices to emergency personnel at the local, state, and federal government levels, as well as to industry personnel in support roles, to ensure ongoing communications under all circumstances. NCS priority offerings include the following:

  • Government Emergency Telecommunications Service

  • Wireless Priority Service

  • Telecommunications Service Priority

These priority telecommunications services give the communications of first responders, emergency workers, and other key NSEP personnel priority status over calls made by public users.

Government Emergency Telecommunications Service
The Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) is a nationwide landline priority telecommunications service currently serving more than 110,000 users. GETS is designed to make maximum use of all available telephone resources if outages occur. GETS facilitates NSEP communications by providing emergency personnel access and priority processing in the local and long-distance segments of the public telephone network.

After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the communications infrastructure throughout the affected states was devastated. Many cellular towers were damaged and some local telephone systems were no longer functional. Michael Paterson, emergency disaster services director of the North and South Carolina Division of the Salvation Army, was deployed to the Salvation Army's divisional headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. There, he supervised all Salvation Army operations in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In addition to communicating with his own response personnel, Paterson's responsibilities included communicating with representatives from other organizations. "In many instances, using either of my two cell phones, each with a different provider, would be prohibitive due to a circuits-busy message," Paterson said. "Even when I was using a landline phone, some of the same issues prohibited making calls. These were the times that I would pull out my GETS card from my wallet and dial the access number, code, and destination number. My calls always went right through. My GETS card is part of my personal preparedness equipment and is with me at all times."

A recent report from NCS regarding GETS use during Hurricane Katrina documented more than 32,000 calls completed during the first 12 days of the disaster period, with a 95 percent call completion rate.

NSEP personnel can apply for GETS through the GETS Web site at ( Once approved by the NCS, GETS subscribers receive a calling card that provides access authorization through a unique dialing plan and personal identification number. There is no initial sign-up fee or monthly recurring charge associated with the GETS program. The cost of a GETS call is typically 10 cents per minute or less.1

Wireless Priority Service
Wireless Priority Service (WPS) is NCS's cellular companion to the GETS program. WPS provides cellular telephone users priority treatment when they experience high levels of congestion. In emergency situations that involve damaged landline networks, cellular telephones often provide the primary means of communication and, with 65 percent of all U.S. citizens using cell phones,2congestion is increased even more. WPS allows authorized NSEP personnel to gain access to the next available cellular radio channel in order to initiate calls during an emergency. WPS users invoke WPS by dialing *272 before their destination number.

Colonel Liz Lippman, a senior reservist assigned to New Orleans for Katrina communications recovery, had this to say about WPS: "I was assigned to New Orleans five weeks after the storm hit and there was still significant congestion in the area. WPS was a lifesaver and worked 100 percent of the time when other cell coverage failed."

WPS, when used in conjunction with GETS, ensures priority treatment in both the landline and cellular portions of the public telephone network. This ensures cellular callers the highest possibility of end- to-end call completion. The use of WPS and GETS assures to the greatest extent possible that emergency workers get connected and stay connected to one another.

Current carriers for WPS include Cingular, Sprint Nextel (iDEN), Southern- LINC, and T-Mobile. The cost for WPS will not exceed a $10 one-time activation fee, a $4.50 monthly service fee, and a 75cents-per-minute charge for WPS calls. WPS charges are in addition to the carrier's basic cellular service plan charges. Additional service information and application procedures are available on the WPS Web site at (

Telecommunications Service Priority
NCS also manages and operates a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program called Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP). TSP is used for the emergency provisioning and restoration of NSEP telecommunications services. NSEP telecommunication services are those services "used to maintain a state of readiness or to respond to and manage any event or crisis (local, national, or international)" that "causes or could cause injury or harm to the population" or "damage to or loss of property" or that "degrades or threatens the NSEP posture of the United States."3

The nation's telecommunications infrastructure is not impervious to a natural disaster or terrorist attack, in which case mission-critical circuits can be disrupted and thousands of access lines damaged. As a result, telecommunications service vendors may become overwhelmed with requests for new services or restoration of existing services. Again, a good case in point is the recent hurricane disaster along the Gulf Coast, where Katrina downed telephone lines and cell towers, leaving the general public and emergency workers with little means of communication. Who makes the decision as to where services are restored first? TSP provides service vendors with an FCC mandate for prioritizing the services that are critical to NSEP. A TSP assignment ensures that the TSP circuit will receive priority attention from the service vendor before any non- TSP circuit. There were 3,270 TSP provisioning requests processed for Hurricane Katrina and 121 requests processed for Hurricane Rita.

The TSP program has generated more than 85,000 NSEP services, representing multiple critical infrastructures currently protected with TSP assignments. State and local organizations currently constitute the largest growth area for TSP restoration assignments, indicating the important role that TSP can play in federal, state, and local governments' and industry's critical infrastructure protection efforts.

The cost for TSP consists of an average one-time fee of $100 to start the service and approximately $3.00 per month to maintain it. The TSP Service User Manual and Vendor Handbook provide complete information on the TSP Program and are available online at (

NCS priority telecommunications services have been instrumental in maintaining critical communications in many disasters. These programs played a crucial role in the restoration of telecommunications services after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The programs support the efforts of first responders, local government officials, FEMA, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and many other agencies that continue to deal with the aftermath of these disasters.

Kenneth Buckley, representing the financial sector of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, had this comment about NCS Priority Telecommunications Services: "TSP, GETS, and WPS proved to be invaluable in facilitating communications throughout the regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama that had incurred major damage to their telecommunications infrastructure. It is hard to conceive how the situation would have been managed without the availability of these priority programs."

Telecommunications Emergency Response Training
First responders, emergency managers, and other NSEP personnel alike need to avail themselves of as many of these important programs as possible to ensure the continuity of essential communications when most needed. To better understand these programs and how they all link together in the National Response Plan's Emergency Support Function 2 (communications),4 NCS urges first responders to attend a telecommunications emergency response training (ERT) seminar in one of the 10 federal response regions.

Now 12 years old, the ERT program encourages dialogue and networking among emergency operations leaders, their planners and communications specialists, and telecommunications providers, both landline and cellular. Each seminar provides an overview of current and future telecommunications services available to responders during emergencies. The briefings place these services in the context of the evolving National Response Plan and the latest lessons learned from actual incidents.

In addition to briefings, NCS devotes half of each seminar to practical application. Using an all-hazards scenario similar to a tabletop exercise, a facilitated group discussion generates dialogue among responders-governmental, nongovernmental, and industry-at the local, regional, and national levels. NCS tailors these discussions to each region.

NSEP personnel may register for an upcoming telecommunications emergency response training seminar, at no cost, through the NCS Web site at

In addition to the priority telecommunications services and the ERT seminars, NCS provides other programs and services to support NSEP efforts across federal, state, and local government and critical infrastructure industry.   ■

1 The prices and reported cost for services may vary greatly over time and were used in this 2006 article only to illustrate expected costs that may be incurred by departments participating in the service.
2 CTIA-The Wireless Association, "Wireless Quick Facts," October 2005,, January 23, 2006.
3 47 C.F.R. Pt. 64, App. A, Code of Federal Regulations, Title 47-Telecommunication, Chapter I-Federal Communications Commission, Subchapter B-Common Carrier Services, Part 64-Miscellaneous Rules Relating to Common Carriers, "3. Definitions (f.),"(, January 23, 2006. See also FCC TSP Report and Order (FCC 88-341).
4 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Response Plan, "ESF #2-Communications Annex," December 2004, (, January 23, 2006.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 3, March 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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