Lawmakers want more interoperability in emergency comms

House subcommittee leaders say more is needed to make emergency communications devices interoperable; they and other officials say FEMA should stay in DHS.

Leaders of a key House subcommittee today expressed frustration with efforts to ensure the interoperability of communications devices used for emergency responses. Meanwhile, some lawmakers and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should remain part of DHS.

FEMA has problems ensuring that state, local and federal emergency communication devices are interoperable across jurisdictions, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee's Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response Subcommittee Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the subcommittee's ranking member, told reporters today. Their panel held a hearing today on FEMA's efforts to implement congressional requirements relating to its preparedness and response mission.

“We have spent a fortune on these communications devices,” Rogers said, adding that the efforts have not led to the needed interoperability of state, local and federal communications systems.

“It appears to me that money obviously isn’t going to be the answer, it’s going to be having to force legislatively some coordination on interoperability,” Rogers added. “Otherwise people will continue buying the latest gadget that they personally like, or that somebody can convince them they like, and it’s not going to meet their interoperability needs.”

Cuellar also said lawmakers should push officials to make sure they are moving to address the problem of interoperable communications.

“It is a problem and we need to push them harder to make sure that we do this as soon as possible,” Cuellar told reporters after the hearing.

During his testimony, Corey Gruber, the acting deputy administrator for FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate, said the agency is addressing the problem of interoperable communications through regional working groups. Guber said FEMA was making progress, but added that making sure communication devices around the country were interoperable posed a great challenge.

In a related area, Cuellar and Rogers said FEMA should remain part of DHS. Experts and officials have been debating removing FEMA from DHS and again making it a separate agency.

FEMA was formed as an independent agency during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. It existed that way until it was consolidated with other agencies to form DHS in 2003.

Richard Skinner, DHS’ inspector general, told the panel that as result of recent efforts to reform the agency, FEMA is currently stronger than it was in 2005 and than it was before joining DHS. In addition, he said that although Hurricane Katrina “put the spotlight” on FEMA, the agency had never been ready to handle a catastrophic disaster of that magnitude. He said that if FEMA were an independent agency during its efforts to respond to Hurricane Katrina, the results would not have been better.

Skinner said he supported updating the 20-year-old law that authorized FEMA’s federal disaster response activities but urged against again reorganizing FEMA and said the agency now had a clear direction.

“It’s time to let the dust settle,” Skinner said.

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