WASHINGTON – The ability of first responders to communicate with one another across jurisdictions and agencies has improved significantly since 9/11 but will remain incomplete without dedicated broadband spectrum that can transmit large caches of data, witnesses told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday.
At the sixth in a series of hearings to assess the progress made and gaps remaining in homeland security since 9/11, the Committee was told that first responders need a 21st century communications system that includes dedicated bandwidth to make the most out of new and future information technologies that will maximize performance and help save lives.
Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., have introduced legislation that would dedicate the so-called D Block bandwidth to first responders. A similar bill has recently been reported out of the Commerce Committee and is headed to the Senate floor.
“We’ve made a lot of progress toward interoperability for first responders and in strengthening the operability of communications networks and systems,” Lieberman said. “The public should have an increased sense of confidence in that. But in an age when the weather, not to mention extremist and terrorist groups, is so unpredictable, dedicated spectrum is essential. If the D-Block legislation passes, that would be a giant leap forward for the ability of first responders to do what we ask and need them to do every day in cities and states across the country. Senator Reid has included the D Block reallocation in his debt reduction plan, which means we have an opportunity within the next week to finally, and fully, fulfill the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation on interoperability. ”
Committee Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said: “Public safety officials should have access to state-of-the-art, interoperable communications equipment to use during emergencies. But we must be sure that resources are invested carefully and that an effective and efficient structure is established to manage emergency communications. My own state of Maine has done a great deal to increase the ability of first responders to communicate with each other. Notably, the state has also been working with Canada to ensure that first responders across our more than 600-mile international border can communicate with each other in an emergency."
In its 2004 report, the 9/11 Commission recommended that the federal government help state and local governments establish interoperable communications for emergency responders in response to their inability to communicate across agency and jurisdictional lines at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Somerset Country Pennsylvania.
A year later, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, and the lack of interoperable communications again thwarted the recovery effort and was compounded by the devastating destruction of communications towers and electrical networks, knocking many communications systems offline, entirely.
The “Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007,” which originated in HSGAC, created the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) within the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate with state and local governments on interoperability. Now, each state and territory has a communications interoperability plan and a statewide interoperability coordinator.
Investments in many state and local communications systems – supplemented by over $4 billion in grant funds from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – have also significantly strengthened voice communications over what they were a few years ago.
Witnesses at the hearing were Gregory Schaffer, Acting Deputy Under Secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS; Michael D. Varney, Statewide Interoperability Coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection; Robert P. McAleer, Director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency; and Charles H. Ramsey, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.