FEMA taking charge of wireless

In another case of homeland security housekeeping, the Office of Management and Budget soon will mandate a reallocation of wireless efforts to one e-government initiative, according to Ronald Miller, the Federal Emergency Management Agency chief information officer.

FEMA will organize the government's communications capabilities under Project SafeCom to ensure emergency workers are outfitted with interoperable equipment.

The small agency recently took charge of the project from the Treasury Department because of FEMA's emphasis on emergency preparedness and first responders, Miller said at an Industry Advisory Council breakfast June 20.

"Our communications system in this country is a total, dismal failure," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).

FEMA plans to use bridging technologies to improve the situation in the near future as it moves toward creating a national standard, Miller said. "Technology is not the problem," he said. "Our job is to bring this community together to find a coordinated solution."

Miller, Weldon and local officials recounted the breakdown in communications following Sept. 11.

In the days after the attacks, responders needed up-to-date information to direct rescues. But with telephone service down in some areas, an overwhelming volume of calls clogging the wireless phone system and fire departments transmitting radio messages on different frequencies, they struggled to communicate. Some were reduced to sending runners with handwritten notes.

In Miller's mind, a reserved radio spectrum for safety is the answer to the communications problem.

As that debate continues, however, first responders are looking for funding, local officials said.

The Bush administration's budget request earmarks $3.5 billion for new equipment and training to enhance state and local readiness for attacks. As part of the proposal, FEMA would allocate $7 million for grants to states — with at least 75 percent going to local governments — for secure communications systems with video, voice and data capabilities.

The agency hopes to establish equipment standards by the end of the year. "They need to be prepared in time for use of the money," Miller said.

Weldon called on information technology leaders in the private sector to help the government bring responders up to speed.

He reiterated his proposal to create a virtual hearing room that would enable vendors to demonstrate their technologies to members of Congress.

"We're finally moving in the right direction," he said. "Your industry needs to be more aggressive."

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