The Senate last week approved legislation to improve public-safety communications interoperability and location-based wireless 911, two vital homeland security components that remain weak links more than five years after the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the deadly, destructive hurricanes of 2005.
The bill, which enacts remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, represents a potential boon for wireless public-safety vendors because of the infusion of an additional $3.3 billion for public-safety interoperability grants and the immediate availability of $43.5 million for enhanced 911 upgrades. Whether the funding levels in the Senate bill will remain intact depends on the outcome of negotiations with the House, which passed a similar 9/11 measure earlier this year.
“Providing vital communications equipment for our first responders that is interoperable in emergencies and establishing a strategic reserve to restore communications in the immediate aftermath of a disaster are essential to protecting the physical and economic welfare of the American people,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Inouye championed a bill section providing guidance on a $1 billion grant program for interoperable public-safety communications assigned to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The NTIA, which contracted with the Department of Homeland Security to administer the grant program, insists it will retain control over the process. The law requires the public-safety interoperability grants to be awarded by Sept. 30, but in reality states likely will not see any money until 2008.
“Since Sept. 11, we have made many improvements to our nation’s transportation security infrastructure and ensured communications interoperability. With the passage of S. 4, we are taking another step forward,” said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), vice chairman of the Commerce Committee. “I am aware of the criticisms surrounding this bill, and will work to improve it in conference. Our job is far from over. We must not become complacent-as our enemies adapt, so must we.”
IP, cross-border included
Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) won backing for two public-safety wireless amendments to the bill. One would ensure that the emergency communications and interoperability communications grant program does not exclude Internet Protocol-based interoperable solutions.
The second expands the reporting requirement on cross border public-safety interoperability and seeks to prevent lengthy delays in accessing frequencies and channels for public-safety communication users and others.
$3B spent, problems remain
The DHS has spent nearly $3 billion on public-safety interoperability grants to date, though Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff admits most first responders around the country still lack the ability to adequately communicate with each other during emergencies. At the same time, Chertoff predicts the festering interoperability dilemma will be fixed in 2008.
Call for E-911 funds
Problems also persist in achieving E-911 capability nationwide, owing to various factors.
The National Emergency Number Association and the Association for Public-Safety Communications Officials-International pressed Congress to make the $43.5 million for E-911 grants available sooner than allowed by law. The grant program was created by the “Ensuring Needed Help Arrives Near Callers Employing 911 (ENHANCE) Act,” which was signed into law in 2004. A 2005 budget bill made the $43.5 million available from the auction of 700 MHz TV spectrum, scheduled for this fall. But there was a legal glitch that effectively prevented police, firefighters and medics from securing federal support until sometime after the auction and the deposit of wireless license sales into the U.S. Treasury.
“Our 911 call centers are often the first point of contact for any emergency incident and they are also the ones that often coordinate the emergency response,” said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), lead sponsor of the E-911 funding language. “Our amendment will provide resources for our 911 call centers to make needed technological upgrades that can be the critical difference between a successful rescue or tragedy. I urge my colleagues to make sure this provision is in the final bill and signed into law.”
Somewhat overshadowed in the Senate 9/11 bill is a provision directing the Federal Communications Commission, working with the DHS, to examine the feasibility of establishing a back-up emergency communications system that complements existing communications facilities and takes into account next generation and advanced telecommunications technologies.
The FCC and Congress are reviewing options for helping public-safety agencies obtain broadband connectivity, with proposed public-private partnerships among the ideas in play. The FCC, which recently named North Carolina police chief Derek Poarch as head the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, is scheduled to host a first-responder summit April 20 in Washington, D.C.