Senate bill seeks survivable communications

In the wake of the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast, several senators introduced a bipartisan bill yesterday that would provide several billion dollars to states and communities to help develop survivable interoperable communications during the next five years.

The bill would also create federal initiatives to address interoperability of radio systems when a disaster damages or destroys an area’s infrastructure.

The Assure Emergency and Interoperable Communications for First Responders Act of 2005 would create a grant program to help develop and implement interoperable communications systems at the state and local levels. The bill would earmark $400 million in 2006 and increase funding annually to about $1 billion by 2010 for a total of $3.3 billion.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the committee’s ranking minority member, sponsored the bill. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also signed the bill.

The bill would create an Office for Emergency Communications, Interoperability and Compatibility within the Homeland Security Department. It would be responsible for promoting interoperability and establishing communications when terrorist attacks or natural disasters damage an area’s communications and power infrastructures.

The bill would direct DHS to create a competitive research and development program to understand the strengths and weaknesses of public safety communications systems. In addition, the program would examine how current and emerging technologies could improve government agencies’ effectiveness, among other issues.

It also would instruct DHS to conduct at least two pilot projects that would evaluate strategies and technologies for providing and maintaining emergency communications when a disaster substantially damages an area’s telecommunications infrastructure and creates a sustained loss of electricity. The bill earmarks more than $500 million for those projects.

“Hurricane Katrina blew down power lines, knocked out cell phone towers and wiped out regular phone service in blasts of wind and water,” Lieberman said in introducing the bill yesterday. “ In too many areas the result was no [landline or celluler] phone service and portable radios that slowly went dead because there was no way to charge the batteries.”

“What do you do when you are down to zero communications?” Lieberman asked. “Gulf Coast emergency officials were repeatedly reduced to using runners to communicate between command centers and first responders in the field. This bill seeks to remedy the communications nightmare we saw in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast -- and make sure we don't have the same nightmare in future disasters.”

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