- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

The federal government yesterday announced it will give the District $11.9 million to fix communications problems still plaguing first responders six years after the September 11 terror attacks.

The grant was part of nearly $1 billion given to states and cities to augment police and fire communications. The biggest state recipients are California with $94 million, Texas with $65 million and New York with $61 million.

In the District, the grants will be managed by the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, a spokeswoman at the agency said.

In certain states, chunks will be specifically set aside for major cities: New York City will get $34.8 million and the Los Angeles/Long Beach area was awarded $22.3 million. Other cities getting specific amounts were: San Francisco Bay area, $14.5 million; Chicago, $16.2 million; Houston, $14.6 million; and Jersey City-Newark, $17.5 million.

A total of $968 million for interoperable communications grants was announced yesterday by the heads of the departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, after a review earlier this year found that of 75 major U.S. cities, only six received a top grade in emergency communications.

The money, said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, will answer “the urgent need for firefighters, police and other first responders to be able to communicate effectively with one another.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the money should get the entire country up to a basic standard of effective emergency communication by 2009 — but only if the local authorities coordinate with each other and avoid turf wars.

“That’s not something the federal government can make people do,” Mr. Chertoff said. “We can put the tools on the table, but the training and the willpower to use the tools has to rest with state and local officials.”

Congress provided the money in a 2005 bill, seeking to address lingering radio problems exposed when hijacked airliners struck the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.

In that chaotic, fast-moving crisis, many firefighters could not hear important radio messages — including orders to evacuate before the second World Trade Center tower collapsed. Police officers’ radios generally worked better, but they had little effective communication with firefighters.

Such flaws were evident again in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina knocked out many local rescue workers’ communications systems.

Since then, Mr. Chertoff and others have insisted that agencies need to end any so-called “battle of the badge” rivalries that historically exist between some departments, and, where needed, adopt new technology to handle a natural or man-made disaster.

“It’s not necessarily the case that everybody’s got to run out and buy new equipment,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Rep. Peter King, New York Republican and an occasional critic of Homeland Security’s grant decisions, said that in this case “the department is moving in the right direction, but obviously New York still needs more.”

In January, homeland security officials found that more than 60 percent of the communities studied had the ability to talk to each other during a crisis, but only one in five showed “seamless” use of equipment needed to also communicate with state and federal authorities.

n Staff writer David C. Lipscomb contributed to this report.

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