Locals offer interoperability guide

National Task Force on Interoperability

While releasing a new guide on the need for interoperable systems, members of 18 organizations representing state, county and local governments pressed the federal government for more money to help first responders get upgraded communications equipment and more radio frequencies.

"You've got to put money on the table right now," stressed Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities (NLC), adding that state and local governments "haven't seen a dime" from the federal government.

Many officials said they were distressed by the federal government's slow progress to provide a promised $3.5 billion last year to help first responders. Counties and cities, which have grappled with their own budget shortfalls, have spent about $2.6 billion in public safety since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officials said.

The government groups, which form the National Task Force on Interoperability (NTFI), today released a guide for public officials titled "Why Can't We Talk? Working Together to Bridge the Communications Gap to Save Lives."

The report cites several reasons why local police, firefighters and emergency medical workers are unable to exchange voice and data communications:

* Equipment is aging and incompatible.

* Governments lack funds to replace equipment.

* Planning, coordination and cooperation among agencies is limited.

* The radio spectrum is fragmented.

In addition to releasing the guide, NFTI also called on Congress to create a national Spectrum Trust Fund, where 50 percent of the revenue from sales and/or leases of radio spectrum frequencies to the private sector would go to help state and local governments with communications interoperability issues. Officials said they didn't know how much money this would produce.

NTFI also called for passage of the Homeland Emergency Response Operations Act, introduced last year by Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).

The bill, slated to be re-introduced to the 108th Congress before March 1, calls for the federal government to give public safety agencies the broadcast frequencies Congress set aside for them in 1997 (from 764 to 776 MHz and from 794 to 806 MHz). Those frequencies are being used by TV channels 63, 64, 68 and 69. The bill would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from granting the private sector any extensions for that spectrum beyond Dec. 31, 2006.

Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties, admitted that the bill may have a hard time passing.

The public safety community has long heralded communications interoperability, but it received little national attention until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the aftermath, many New York City firefighters and police officers died because they couldn't speak to one another via their radios.

Harlin McEwen, a former police chief in Ithaca, N.Y., and a former FBI employee, said as tragic as Sept. 11 was, it also was an "enlightening moment" to highlight the interoperability problem.

Although many state and regional efforts are focused on implementing interoperable systems, McEwen said progress on such initiatives has slowed because money is drying up or has disappeared.

A fiscal report released Feb. 4 by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that states were facing a $49 billion shortfall in crafting their fiscal 2003 budgets and could face a $70 billion shortfall for fiscal 2004.

In California, for example, the state might take vehicle license fees from local governments to help counter its massive budget shortfall, according to Olden Henson, a Hayward, Calif., City Council member. Henson said that could mean a $6.7 million loss for his community, which earmarks those funds for public safety — funds that would go a long way to address the interoperability issue.

"We're waiting for the federal funding and at the same time must fulfill our [public safety] mandate," said Henson, a member of NLC's Public Safety Committee. He added that many officials would lobby Congress for those funds.

The new NTFI guide offers no new startling facts, officials admitted, but they said it does signal a significant cooperative effort among the representatives from state, county and local governments on this particular issue. That hasn't happened before, they noted.

For many communities, the guide is a first step toward interoperability, said Charles Werner, deputy fire chief for Charlottesville, Va. "We must cooperate to interoperate," he said.

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