- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

While public tensions may have eased since the Iraqi war, recent hearings by the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet expose a critical communications gap. All too frequently, our local police and fire departments’ radio systems can’t communicate with those of neighboring communities in an emergency. In a national emergency, the result could be chaos.

To solve this problem, several things need to happen. Public safety officials need consistent access to the 700 MHz band. Key interoperability tools are needed. And the federal role, including funding, needs to be much greater.

Fortunately, a road map is in place to address these issues — one that should be followed as the president and Congress work to hammer out fiscal 2004 appropriations.

The road map arose from sad experience. Unlike some vulnerabilities that only came to light following September 11, 2001, the problem of public safety radios not communicating with neighboring jurisdictions has been known for decades.

The 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., revealed that police and fire radio communications were inadequate. As a result, the Washington Metropolitan Area Council of Governments worked proactively to design an interoperable radio communications solution and mutual aid agreement. When September 11 arrived, the local public safety community in the D.C. area was prepared and, with the simple flip of a switch, they were able to communicate seamlessly at the site of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. This was not the case for the radios of federal responders who arrived on the scene.

On a national scale, too, public safety officials have spent much of the last decade hammering out the standards for achieving radio interoperability between mission-critical systems. Working in partnership with the Telecommunications Industry Association, a steering committee comprised of local, state and federal public safety officials developed the comprehensive baseline interoperability standards, now referred to as Project 25. This accomplishment by public safety officials, working voluntarily in their “spare time,” is a monumental testament to their commitment to the public welfare.

As a result of this tremendous effort, systems built to Project 25 standards are in operation around the United States, and more are coming online each year. The Project 25 standards have been adopted or endorsed by major public safety organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Federal Law Enforcement Wireless Users Group, which represents 33 federal agencies. The Defense Department has mandated Project 25 for its base support systems. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also stipulated that radios purchased under its grant program for states and localities should be Project 25 compliant. Additionally, many large states like California have written the standard into legislation.

Having been presented with a road map that has been so broadly endorsed, it is now up to the president and Congress to fund the plan and upgrade this nation’s public safety radio equipment to meet the new standards. It is essential that the federal government fund state and local acquisition of Project 25-compliant equipment until every police, fire and emergency rescue officer in the United States has the equipment needed to do his or her job — save lives.

To illustrate the scope of the funding requirement, one need only compare the federal government’s estimate of the replacement value of our nation’s existing public safety wireless systems — $18.3 billion — to the size of the two interoperability funding programs included in the congressional spending bills for 2003. Together, these total only $154 million. With the states facing a staggering aggregate $80 billion deficit in 2004, we cannot look to them to make up the difference. We need a well-funded, multiyear federal program that will guarantee that this problem is fixed properly, once and for all.

This is an issue where the detailed study and planning has been done; what’s required now is action. The president and Congress can be assured the proper groundwork has been laid. We need the commitment of substantial federal resources to complete the process of constructing or upgrading the nation’s public safety wireless radio communications systems to achieve interoperability. If this is done quickly, the arduous standards work undertaken by public safety officials during the 1990s will be well worth the effort, as it enhances our ability to make the nation safer.

Matthew J. Flanigan is the president of the Telecommunications Industry Association.

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