- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2005

As hearings begin on how to improve U.S. emergency preparedness after Hurricane Katrina, Congress must give serious and immediate attention to a major, recurring and needless public-safety problem: inability of first responders to communicate with each other during a catastrophe.

This “crisis of interoperability” came horrifyingly to light on September 11, 2001. After the first World Trade Center tower collapsed, more than 100 New York City firemen died because their radios could not receive the police band call to evacuate the second tower. Soon it was discovered that police, fire and other emergency departments in municipalities and counties around the nation could not talk to one another as they converged in Lower Manhattan.

This electronic “Tower of Babel” was seen again during last year’s hurricanes in Florida. The hurricanes hit widespread areas and required response efforts from many jurisdictions, most of which in the rush of rescue couldn’t communicate to each another over their department systems.

In the days following Katrina, it became clear most jurisdictions in both the Gulf region and the nation as a whole have taken little or no action to address interoperability issues. The reason is not lack of will so much as lack of funds. Replacing existing first-responder systems with state-of-the-art equipment is a huge financial challenge for any locality. Ensuring municipalities nationwide make this transition requires a new funding plan.

Now many in Congress urge a rapid response, at last, to this need of first-responders. Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, Susan Collins, Maine Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, Reps. Jane Harman, California Democrat, and Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, have all provided leadership on this issue. One approach, advocated by Mr. McCain and others, would accelerate freeing parts of the wireless radio spectrum previously allocated for public safety use but not yet available.

Broadcasters now use this spectrum to transmit analog television signals. It is in the highly valuable 700 MHz section of the spectrum. Together with an adjacent larger swath, these frequencies are slated to be vacated when stations move to digital television (DTV) transmission in 2009.

Mr. McCain’s plan would speed this transition. Moving broadcasters out, moving public safety in, and auctioning the remainder will be highly complex, but could begin earlier than now scheduled. Spectrum engineers agree the McCain plan will provide more than enough additional frequencies for first responders’ needs. But it will not end the interoperability crisis.

The inability of first responders to communicate in crises is only minimally due to inadequate bandwidth. Mostly it is a matter of inadequate radios and other devices. More frequencies won’t help when agencies can’t pick up one another’s signals.

Municipalities will need to coordinate their purchases, seeking technologies that allow cross-agency communications that don’t interfere with the communications of others. All the tens of thousands of police, fire and rescue organizations must receive upgraded software or replace their mobile devices, and very few public safety agencies are able to afford that. National costs are estimated in the billions of dollars.

Simply, Congress will need to provide first responders with not just more radio frequency spectrum but more money. Without new funds to pay for communications upgrades, giving local agencies additional spectrum will prove fruitless.

New funding need not mean new federal taxes or borrowing. Congress can and should use the spectrum auctions to fund interoperability. The DTV transition plans anticipate auctioning the rest of the 700 MHz band to licensed wireless service providers of both voice and broadband applications.

For technical reasons, this section of 700 MHz spectrum is unusually valuable. An auction could raise billions, funding both public safety interoperability and the television set-top converter boxes necessary for older TV sets to receive DTV signals after broadcasters vacate the analog spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to auction a section of Defense Department airwaves next year, but most of those proceeds are already earmarked for other uses. Congress should look to the broadcast spectrum to fund interoperability, and it should direct the FCC to move up the DTV transition to early 2008.

As Hurricane Katrina showed, America’s public safety interoperability problem remains unsolved. Though the issues surrounding this crisis are complex, the solution can be simple. As it begins post-Katrina hearings, Congress has the tools to end the interoperability crises once and for all.

Asa Hutchinson is former undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

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