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Plans for national emergency radio system 'languish' in Congress

Friday, September 2, 2011 | 5:36 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Amid the chaos of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, emergency responders found they couldn't communicate with each other. That problem persists 10 years later, according to a review of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.

A National Preparedness Group report released Wednesday concludes that the recommendation for a nationwide broadband network for emergency responders be created "continues to languish."

The report — whose authors include 9/11 Commission chairmen Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean — faults a political fight for the failure to improve radio interoperability for first responders. There have been disputes about whether to allocate 10 MHz of radio spectrum to public safety or to a commercial wireless bidder, who, according to the report, would have to give priority access to public safety during emergencies.

Law enforcement and emergency responders around the country have long supported the creation of the communication network. In January, President Barack Obama announced his support for allocating the radio space, known as the D-block spectrum, to police and other emergency workers.

Bills that would set aside the D-block and create a communications network have been introduced in both the House and the Senate this year but so far have not been passed in either chamber.

Several big wireless carriers have supported auctioning off the airwaves to the wireless industry, a move that the government has estimated would raise about $3.1 billion. That could help pay to build a public safety communications network.

The Federal Communications Commission has tried to auction off the D-block before. But that 2008 auction required that the winning bidder help build a network to be shared by first responders and give them priority in an emergency. It did not attract any serious bidders.

The preparedness report said statewide communications interoperability plans and the creation of a national emergency communications plan have improved emergency coordination across different jurisdictions. But more work needs to be done and the ultimate solution, the report said, is to follow the 9/11 Commission's recommendation and create a nationwide communications network.


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Comments

John Kendall September 6, 2011 | 3:27 p.m.

9/11 communications problems are frequently cited as the reason why "interoperability" is essential in a disaster. What is ignored is the fact the in New York on 9/11 the FDNY had an outmoded radio system, the radio repeater sites were on top of the World Trade Center and the command structure of the FDNY was decimated by the collapse of the towers. The State of New York does not seem to have an established mutual aid fire radio system. A department the size of FDNY probably saw no need to set up coordinated radio communications with smaller outside departments which in many cases are volunteers. This lack of foresight has now been translated into a national issue and billions of dollars are a stake and likely to be awarded to a private company who may or may not be able to deliver.

In California, where fires and earthquakes are a fact of life, fire departments already have 'interoperability" and have had for decades. A new national system is not necessary.

By the way, the internet was originally conceived as a nationwide communication system whose diverse and diffuse character made it immune to disaster and attacks.

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