WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of Senators from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday introduced legislation aimed at improving the ability of first responders to communicate with one another at disaster sites.

Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Me., Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Senators Daniel Akaka, D-Hi., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the Improve Interoperable Communications for First Responders Act of 2005 would provide dedicated funding, strengthen federal leadership, fortify outreach and technical assistance to state and local first responders, promote greater regional cooperation, and ensure research and development on interoperability issues so that police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical workers can talk to one another across jurisdictional, departmental, and geographic boundaries.

The ICOM Act:

Requires the Department of Homeland Security to develop a national strategy, with goals and timetables, and a national architecture for interoperable communications; conduct extensive, nationwide outreach, reinforce technical assistance to help state and local officials develop interoperable solutions.
Requires the DHS Secretary to establish a comprehensive, competitive research and development program.
Authorizes OIC to fund and conduct pilot programs to evaluate new technology.
Authorizes $3.3 billion over five years for short and long-term interoperability initiatives and $126 million per year to the OIC for outreach, and for technical assistance, research and development, and pilot programs.

“The Government Accountability Office found that a substantial barrier to effective communications is the use of incompatible wireless equipment by many agencies and levels of government when they are responding to a major emergency,” Collins said. “From computer systems to emergency radios, the technology that should allow these different levels of government to communicate with each other too often is silenced by incompatibility. Clearly, the barrier to a truly unified effort against terrorism is a matter of both culture and equipment. This legislation will help break down that barrier,” said Senator Collins. “It is also vitally important that we assist the States in getting the right communications technology into the hands of their first responders. That would be accomplished by the interoperability grant program in our legislation.”

“History has shown that the failure of first responders to communicate with each other during terrorist attacks or natural disasters can cost lives, but it also creates problems during everyday emergency operations,” Lieberman said. “This legislation provides strong national leadership and needed dollars to find cost-effective solutions to interoperability problems. It is crucial for the safety of our nation and the first responders who risk their lives every day to protect it.”

“We have all heard the stories of how the first responders could not communicate on 9/11 and this lack of communication cost lives,” said Levin. “The same situation is happening all over this country and we need to improve interoperable communications before more lives are lost. Attaining this objective will require substantial resources and a strong commitment by Congress and the Administration. This legislation takes an important first step in this effort.”

Senator Akaka said: “The ICOM Act requires the Secretary to look to at the unique geographic barriers in each state which may impede interoperability when awarding grants. This is key to states like Hawaii that may require additional transmitter towers and other types of equipment to overcome the obstacles that come with being a mountainous or island state.”