Public Safety Officials Must Have 21st Century Communications

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., pointing to a new report on the communications problems of state and local public safety officials, called on the Bush Administration Thursday to devote the attention and resources necessary for first responders to overcome fundamental handicaps they face in the war against terrorism. The report – entitled “Why Can’t We Talk?”- cites several reasons why local police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel are unable to exchange both voice and data communications, including the facts that their equipment is aging and incompatible, they don’t have the money to replace it; planning, coordination and cooperation between agencies is limited; and the radio spectrum is fragmented.

“Guaranteeing that first responders have interoperable communications equipment should be among our highest priorities,” Lieberman said. “It is unacceptable, in the Information Age, for public safety officials to be without the communications tools they need. So far, the Administration has not approached this issue with the sense of urgency, resources and leadership it requires.

“If we are serious about our domestic defenses, we must remedy this very basic problem shared by public safety officials across the country who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. ”

The Department of Homeland Security Act, which Lieberman spearheaded in the weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks, creates an Office of State and Local Government Coordination responsible for maintaining good relationships with localities, for overseeing programs for first responders, and for assessing and advocating for necessary resources. Lieberman called on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to establish this office swiftly to demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to those on the first line of defense and to determine the overall resources required to ensure that first responders can communicate easily with one another. Funding for interoperable communications is not designated in the Administration’s budget, making it difficult to determine how much will be available to meet this critical need.

“The inability of our public safety officials to readily communicate with one another threatens the public’s safety and often results in unnecessary loss of lives and property,” said the report, produced by the National Task Force on Interoperability, whose members include 18 national associations of state and local government and public safety officials. “… Solutions to this national issue can only be achieved through cooperation between all levels of government….”

Since September 11th, local first responders have cited the need for interoperable communications equipment as a top priority in their efforts to better prepare for a terrorist attack. At the World Trade Center, police received word that the towers were on the verge of collapse and were able to begin evacuating the buildings. Firefighters, however, received no such warning because they were using a different radio communications system and many died as a result. The Public Safety Wireless Network, a joint Treasury and Justice Department policy group, estimates the long-term cost of replacing all communications equipment used by state and local governments at $18 billion. Temporary solutions, which would improve communications for first responders using existing equipment, would presumably cost less. However, it is not clear how much of the $3.5 billion the Administration proposed for FY2004 for all first responder needs would be dedicated to this critical issue.