Controversial group: First responders need big bucks

First Response Coalition

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Members of a new advocacy group representing the interests of first responders say the federal government is shortchanging the nation’s police, fire and emergency medical employees nearly $100 billion.

However, members of the same group, called the First Response Coalition, opposed a Federal Communications Commission spectrum realignment plan last year that would greatly benefit public safety organizations operating in the 800 MHz range.

The group, which was funded by Verizon last year, apparently received Internal Revenue Service designated 501(c)3 status this January, said the coalition’s director, Todd Main. The group based its figures on a 2003 report by the Council on Foreign Relations, which estimated emergency responders will lack $98.4 billion to adequately prepare, train and equip for potential terrorist attacks during the next few years.

The coalition’s figure for the estimated shortfall matches the council’s widely acknowledged report, which was co-authored by former cybersecurity czar Richard Clarke, former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman and Jamie Metzl, project director of the task force that created the council’s report.

“The glowing rhetoric from Republicans and Democrats alike promising first responders funds needed to keep American communities and their residents after the tragedy of [Sept. 11, 2001,] has now faded into a bitter reality in which police, fire and EMT needs will be underfunded by $100.2 billion by 2008,” Main said during a telephone press conference today. “Unfortunately, that is a conservative estimate.”

Coalition members argue that adding the money would cover needs for more employees, protective gear, training programs and interoperable radio communications. Bill Fox, commissioner of the Metropolitan Fire Association of New York City, said fire departments nationwide have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift. He said most of the communications equipment is outdated.

“Some of us are still in the 19th [century] with the radio systems out there,” he said.

Gene Stilp, president of the Dauphin-Middle Paxton Fire Company No. 1 in Dauphin, Pa., said first responders expect $6.8 billion in federal funds from 2004 to 2009 for interoperable communications. Coalition members recommend doubling that figure and providing loan guarantees for low-income and rural communities that need to upgrade their equipment.

Coalition members also called for more regional interoperability solutions, adding that Congress should free more space on the spectrum, especially as agencies use more data and video.

Although the group now advocates more spectrum for first responders, members opposed the FCC plan to move Nextel Communications out of the 800 MHz radio spectrum so the company wouldn’t interfere with public safety communications systems. Verizon and several other carriers opposed the move, but public safety groups, which long battled for more airwaves and less interference, supported it.

Several municipal fire department chiefs and other supporters criticized in a press release last September the First Response Coalition’s opposition to the FCC mandate, saying the group was “ill-informed and misguided.” They said the group was involved in a “Verizon-supported campaign of misinformation.”

“We urge the First Response Coalition to stop this destructive operation,” they said in the release.

Main acknowledged the group has received some funding from Verizon. But he said they no longer take a position on the spectrum realignment issue because it is settled, adding that first responders got a better deal out of it.

He said the coalition has 40,000 first-responder supporters and are looking to develop a membership base, collect annual dues from members, and receive corporate sponsorships and grants from foundations. He said the coalition received money from Verizon this year, too.

Although Valerie Smith, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department, said she didn’t know anything about the report, she said the federal government has a tremendous commitment to first responders.

“In the three fiscal years before Sept. 11, the federal government gave $1.2 billion in preparedness grants to state and local agencies,” she said. “In three years after Sept. 11, it gave about $12 billion. In terms of dollars that’s over a 900 percent increase in funding. There’s very much recognition at all levels of government that first responders are the most important actors in the war on terror.”

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