Dems back DHS wireless office

Safecom

House Democrats introduced a bill today that would establish a wireless communications office within the Homeland Security Department and a $5 billion grant program to help first responders become interoperable.

"All first responders need, and quite frankly deserve, a commitment from this Congress that the roadblocks that have prevented the implementation of an interoperable communications system — particularly aging equipment and a lack of consistent federal funding — will be eliminated," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said during a telephone press conference.

The Connecting the Operations of National Networks of Emergency Communications Technologies (CONNECT) for First Responders Act would create an Office of Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications that would essentially replace the existing Safecom program office.

"They just can't seem to get this done," Lowey said about Safecom. "And we hear from our police and our firefighters over and over again how important this is. So we thought, 'If we just focus on a particular office, get funding for that office, [and] let's hope we can get some real accountability.'"

Citing a recent General Accounting Office report, Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking member on the Homeland Security Select Committee, added Safecom "has made very little progress due to a lack of executive commitment and an inadequate level of interagency cooperation. And based on that report we have concluded that the proper thing to do is place Project Safecom under the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security."

The GAO report, however, also said DHS officials have shown high-level executive support for Safecom, and the office is trying to establish formal written agreements with other federal partners. The Safecom office also recently published a comprehensive 192-page statement of requirements, which outlines wireless communications interoperability needs for public safety officials.

The CONNECT Act also requires creation of equipment purchasing standards and guidance for first responders in this matter. The bill would create a new five-year $5 billion grant program, with a 25 percent matching grant from state and local jurisdictions, for state and local first responders. That would include a temporary reimbursement program for any purchases toward communications interoperability between Sept. 11, 2001 and enactment of the bill.

The Democratic announcement came as the 9-11 Commission was holding hearings on the communication failures of New York first responders during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Police, fire and emergency medical personnel encountered malfunctioning equipment, sporadic communication and radio congestion during rescue operations. Nearly 400 first responders died that day.

DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, who testified before the commission today about the department's efforts during the past year, said activities in interoperable communications will be coordinated by a new Office of Interoperability and Compatibility that will be launched in the near future.

"This office will focus not just on interoperable communications but also on the gear and equipment that will be used by multiple jurisdictions — firefighters and police officers from different neighborhoods — as they join together to respond to a major event," he said in his testimony. "In addition, this office has initiated a program aimed at providing communications interoperability at disaster sites in the near term. And we expect multiple cities to achieve this goal sometime this fall."

The CONNECT Act is the latest in a slew of homeland security bills proposed by House Democrats. Since May, they have presented legislation dealing with bioterrorism and strengthening security in aviation, sea ports and public transit.

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