Responders sound off

Safecom

State and local first responders and emergency officials said nationwide interoperable communications need sustained funding and attention from Congress.

During a Sept. 8 congressional hearing, a second panel of state and local officials rattled off a laundry list of problems — such as lack of money, planning, coordination, guidance, training, and expertise; outdated equipment and technology; limited radio spectrum; and uneven procurement cycles — that surround the issue in many communities.

But many also said the Safecom office — a federal program within the Homeland Security Department that is establishing national standards and architecture and coordinating federal activity regarding communications interoperability — is actually working well with communities to resolve such issues. They said Safecom officials understand that interoperability should be locally driven and not from the top down. They requested continued support for the office. Michael Neuhard, chief of the Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department, said communities surrounding the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area have addressed the issue of interoperability for many years and also have received continued funding since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But he said first responders are concerned about communities farther away from metropolitan areas that would need to be called on should another catastrophic event occur. He said during the attack on the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., three years ago, emergency agencies were establishing staging areas in other areas in the state.

"So, our concern becomes that those people [who] have to come and backfill us also have the same level of operability that we have," Neuhard said.

But although things are going in the right direction, he said, a steady stream of funding and guidance is necessary for many fire departments that have volunteers and can't spare the time or don't have the expertise to apply for federal grants.

"That needs to be ingrained in our culture in terms of Congress, and we need to continue to see that kind of support," he added.

Thomas Worden, telecommunications branch chief at California's Emergency Services Office, said the problem has more to do with the need for better coordination and guidance and more funding than technology.

"Technology is a very small part of the problem," he said "I often tell people that given a reasonable amount of time and a huge amount of money my communications specialists can get anybody to talk to anybody. But during a crisis you don't have the time and the government can never have a reasonable amount of money."

Federal funding programs, Worden said, require detailed operational and technical analysis planning, but will not pay for it or offer very little guidance to the applicant on how to achieve it. He added that people need to recognize that a multiyear planning effort is needed to help communities develop and implement a system. Another problem is eliminating duplicate grants that come with too many strings attached.

"Please don't get me wrong," Worden testified. "I don't want to eliminate duplicate sources of money, but when those sources of money come with duplicate guidance, it leads us off in too many different directions."

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