Tech key to terror response

Federal, state and local officials made clear at a congressional hearing

Oct. 5 that communications systems—which have proven to be flawed during

past disasters—would be key to providing an effective response to a chemical

or biological terrorist attack.

The hearing, held by the House Government Reform Committee's Government

Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee,

focused on how well-prepared federal, state and local governments are to

handle such attacks.

Several witnesses said local emergency response organizations are best

equipped to coordinate response efforts because they are familiar with their

communities and can provide relief most rapidly. However, improved communication

technology is needed, said Donald Lynch, director of emergency management

for Shawnee, Okla., and Pottawatomie County, Okla.

"When examining response to disasters, emergencies and terrorism events,

one common thread is the failure of communication systems," Lynch said.

"If responders are to be able to respond efficiently, effectively and safely,

they must be able to communicate with each other. Incompatible frequency

assignments, outdated and inoperable equipment and overloaded circuits are

often cited as issues relating to communication failure."

Following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building

in Oklahoma City, telephone networks were overloaded, he said, and even

after portable cellular sites were established, nonemergency use tied up

communications. Two-way radio technologies were used, but various agencies

used different frequencies, he said.

Similar problems occurred in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist

attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon, he said.

Lynch recommended that the Federal Communications Commission maintain

the current radio spectrum allocation level for public safety and military

use and examine interoperability in future spectrum assignments to federal,

state and local governments. He also said that federal grant programs for

communications systems, including computer systems, should have interoperability

requirements with other jurisdictions.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward Norris, advocating an increased

role for local law enforcement agencies in investigating and preventing

terrorist acts, said the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act,

passed in 1994, must be fully implemented and enforced. That law requires

telephone companies to ensure that their systems and networks can accommodate

federal, state and local wiretaps, despite changing telephone technology,

he said.

"Right now we can't intercept certain digital phone technologies, and

that is keeping all of us dangerously in the dark," Norris said.

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