Responder group enters fray

First Response Coalition

Members of a group that represents first responders say the federal government is underfunding the nation's police, fire and emergency medical employees by $100 billion for essential interoperable communications and spectrum issues.

But several well-known representatives of the public safety community said they know little about this group, the First Response Coalition. The coalition opposed a successful Federal Communications Commission spectrum plan last year that benefited the emergency response community.

The group's members held a telephone press conference last week to unveil a new report that states that the federal government would shortchange first responders by $100.2 billion by 2008. The group's report was based on a 2003 study by the Council on Foreign Relations, which estimated a $98.4 billion shortfall during the next few years.

Todd Main, the new coalition's director, said the organization received tax-exempt status, known as 501(c)3, from the Internal Revenue Service in January. Its leaders seek to develop a dues-paying membership and collect funding from corporations and foundations. Main said the group has 40,000 supporters, mostly first responders, but no actual membership base yet.

Verizon funded the group last year to oppose the FCC's plan to move Nextel Communications out of the 800 MHz radio spectrum so the company wouldn't interfere with public safety communications systems, which broadcast on that frequency.

"I think it should be said that they were at odds with the national public safety organizations in the 800 MHz proceeding and opposed the consensus plan," said Harlin McEwen of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Several fire chiefs and fire association directors issued a press release last year calling the coalition's opposition to the FCC mandate ill-informed and misguided, adding that the group was waging a "Verizon-supported campaign of misinformation."

Alan Caldwell, senior adviser to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said he didn't understand the group's motives now since they have opposed most other public safety organizations.

"I'm not going to say anything good about them," he said. "I'm not going to say anything bad about them because I don't know anything about them." He also didn't know Bill Fox, a coalition member identified as commissioner of the Metropolitan Fire Association of New York City, and has never heard of his organization.

Main said Verizon supported the coalition last year during the spectrum issue and has given funding this year, too. He said the group no longer takes a position on the spectrum issue, adding that first responders got a good deal. He said the purpose of the group is to educate the public about the issues and work with other first responder associations.

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