- - Monday, April 21, 2014

A day after Boston hosted its first major marathon since the heartbreaking 2013 bombing, we still remember the three people who lost their lives, the more than 250 who were injured, and the hundreds of first responders and medical professionals who helped them survive. The tragedy in Boston reminds us that, as a nation, we must always be vigilant — ready to respond whenever and wherever a tragedy strikes.

It also serves as an unfortunate reminder that we must look for ways to improve our emergency-response system.

One challenge that first responders often face is a lack of a critical interoperable communications infrastructure. Today, different agencies from different jurisdictions are unable to talk to each other because they are using different frequencies.

Or if responders are able to identify a mutually accessible channel, their communications can be impeded by a massive surge in members of the public making calls, leading to busy signals or dropped lines.

This is a natural human response. In any catastrophic event, people call their loved ones to check in and to make sure they’re OK. We saw this on Sept. 11, 2001, during the Boston Marathon last year, and again recently amid the tragic, nine-alarm Boston fire that claimed the life of two of Boston’s bravest.

Currently, America’s public-safety systems are unconnected, with thousands of individual federal, state and local networks. No direct connection means that different public-safety organizations cannot communicate with one another, which threatens the safety of police, firefighters, emergency medical service professionals and other officials. It also puts the public at risk.

Unless something is done to alleviate the stress on first responders’ communications systems, it will only get worse. The number of cellphone subscribers in the United States has nearly tripled since 2001 and by the end of this year, experts say, there will be more in-use cellphones globally than people on the planet.

Back in 2011, then-New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told a congressional panel, “A 16-year-old with a smartphone has a more advanced communications capability than a police officer or deputy carrying a radio . Given the technology that is available and the complexity of the threat we face, that is unacceptable. It will only change if we succeed in building a nationwide broadband network to a mission-critical grade of service.”

The federal government has already outlined the National Response Framework, devised by the Department of Homeland Security, which calls for an interoperable communications system — a system that will allow responders from different jurisdictions and different agencies to communicate with each other without the fear of using the wrong channel or being interrupted by a spike in calls by the public.

Today, we’re on the cusp of being able to build that network. FirstNet would allow fire, police and other personnel to talk to each other — and treat the injured — without getting a busy signal.

Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai told a congressional panel that the “build-out makes good on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that first responders need interoperable communications systems in times of disaster” and sets aside funding for the deployment of a next-generation 9-1-1 emergency number.

In order to raise the funds necessary to build FirstNet, the FCC must ensure an open auction of spectrum that is currently owned by television broadcasters. If this auction is successful, it should generate the revenue needed to fund FirstNet. With all of the competing demands on government resources and taxpayers, this auction may be the last best way to get FirstNet funded.

We need to be prepared for all hazards — whether it’s an attack such as that on the Boston Marathon, or a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or hurricane. As a former SWAT officer, first responder and surgeon general of the United States, I know that every second matters, and if first responders aren’t able to communicate, lives will be threatened.

It’s time to, as Vice President Joe Biden said, “fulfill a promise made to first responders after 9/11 that they would have the technology they need to stay safe and do their jobs.”

It’s time to fund FirstNet.

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