Comms gap big concern

Federal emergency officials would welcome a technological equivalent to the National Guard to help restore the nation's communications systems after a disaster — but what they really need is a system that allows police and firefighters to talk to one other.

The events of Sept. 11 demonstrated that "in many communities, fire departments and the police don't have the technology to communicate," said Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at a hearing held Dec. 5 by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee. "If we as a government should do one thing nationwide, it would be to make sure our first responders can speak with each other" in times of crisis.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the subcommittee's chairman, proposed in October that the nation's information technology companies organize a National Emergency Technology Guard (NET Guard), composed of volunteers from the IT community who could be mobilized quickly in an emergency.

A NET Guard could help repair and recreate damaged communications systems and set up command centers, Wyden said. "It's time to create a high-technology reserve — a talent bank that serves as a new force to confront a new threat," he said.

Allbaugh and John Marburger III, the new director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said they supported greater voluntary preparedness, but they cautioned that ensuring redundancies in communications systems is equally important.

"We need a well-defined agreement on what is necessary to provide backup support, and then we can work to fill in what's required in terms of details," Marburger said.

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