Senators promote interoperability

Senate lawmakers on June 21 introduced legislation to help first responders communicate with each other at disasters.

The Improve Interoperable Communications for First Responders Act of 2005 would require the Homeland Security Department (DHS) to develop a national strategy and architecture for interoperable communications, including providing technical assistance to state and local officials developing interoperable systems.

The act would authorize the DHS secretary to establish a comprehensive and competitive research and development program. It would also require the DHS Office of Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) to fund and conduct pilot programs to evaluate new technologies.

Under the bill, lawmakers are proposing $3.3 billion over five years for long- and short-term initiatives and another $126 million annually to the OIC to conduct outreach, technical assistance, research and development and pilot programs.

The OIC was created within the Science and Technology Directorate last year to serve as essentially an umbrella office to coordinate interoperability efforts for all types of equipment and related training. The SAFECOM program, which coordinates national interoperable communications policies, practices and technologies in the public safety sector, sits within that office.

“For a state like mine that has the largest port by tonnage in New England, two international airports, key defense installations, hundreds of miles of coastline, and a long international border, compatible communications equipment is essential,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the sponsors of the bill, in a prepared statement. “Yet it remains an illusive goal.”

Other sponsors of the bill include Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii).

While communications interoperability has been a long-standing issue among public safety officials and experts, both the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – in which first responders had difficultly communicating with one another – catapulted the issue nationally.

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