Congress pushes for more resilient telecom

Emergency Interoperability Consortium

As congressional lawmakers probe the weak, uncoordinated government relief and recovery responses to Hurricane Katrina, they have begun pushing for better communications networks that are interoperable and resilient.

Last week, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced a bill that would give $3.3 billion in grants to state and local agencies to build interoperable communications systems in the next five years.

The Assure Emergency and Interoperable Communications for First Responders Act of 2005 would also establish a new Homeland Security Department research program to assess current technological capabilities and evaluate emerging ones that can be adapted within a national framework that promotes interoperability, efficient spectrum use and information sharing.

The bill instructs DHS to develop at least two pilot projects that would evaluate strategies and technologies for providing and maintaining emergency communications when there is a substantial loss of ordinary telecommunications infrastructure and a sustained loss of electricity, as Louisiana and Mississippi experienced after Katrina.

The hurricane wiped out most of the communications and power infrastructures in the Gulf Coast region, leaving emergency responders unable to talk with one another and coordinate rescue activities. Flooding in New Orleans caused problems for responders attempting to bring in generators and fuel to get communications systems operating.

Lieberman said emergency officials were reduced to using runners to communicate between command centers and first responders in the field, which some observers have likened to Third World situations. But Lieberman said it was more like ancient Athens in 490 B.C.

"But certainly between 490 B.C. and the 21st century, we've made greater advancement in communications technologies than better running shoes," he said.

Several experts in emergency communications said the bill promotes some elements that have been missing in previous bills.

Matt Walton, chairman of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium, said he's encouraged by the bill because it specifically references data interoperability for the first time. Previous legislation almost invariably restricted its language to equipment, which meant voice and radio, he said. Although "we believe that voice and radios are critical, there is another realm however, which is data, which, if anything, is even larger and which, up to now, has not been clearly identified as a critical priority," he said.

Patrick Halley, government affairs director at the National Emergency Number Association, which promotes implementation of Enhanced 911 systems, said the bill looks toward next-generation technologies for more advanced systems, which the consortium supports, he added.

Halley also said the bill would create a federal emergency communications and interoperability office and an interagency federal committee to develop national standards for interoperable and survivable systems -- something that is clearly needed.

"There's been a lot of good efforts, but not one entity responsible for coordinating those efforts," he said.

Gary Oldham, a former police officer and fire official with extensive knowledge of communications, said the bill addresses two critical issues of interoperability. One is the technical aspect of getting disparate radio systems to communicate with one another. He said some stop-gap technologies promote interoperability in a certain area, but long-term solutions, such as software-defined radio, are needed.

But Oldham, who is now a program manager at Computer Sciences Corp., said the bill also addresses the need for standard operating procedures for incident response, which he said is essentially promoting the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

Although the fire service has been using clear text for years, he said law enforcement agencies still use codes when responding to some incidents. Standard operating procedures, such as NIMS, which state and local governments are implementing, provide a uniform way of responding to incidents. Otherwise, there may be confusion and miscommunication during emergencies, he added.

However, local, state and federal governments and the private sector must accelerate their efforts, he said.

"I think it's kind of going in the right direction, but it is and has been moving way too slowly," Oldham said.

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