Lawmakers riled about poor emergency communications

A congressional subcommittee grilled federal emergency communications officials today about what they have done to improve communications for first responders since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast Aug. 29.

Katrina knocked down more than 3 million phone lines and 1,000 cellular towers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, which severely limited first responders' ability to share information and react effectively after the storm, said Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology Subcommittee.

“As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, in the absence of a reliable network across which responders within an agency can effectively communicate, interoperability is neither possible nor relevant,” David Boyd, director of Safecom, told subcommittee members. Safecom is the communications program of the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility at the Homeland Security Department.

First responders in those states are still complaining that they don’t have adequate equipment or frequency spectrum to communicate with one another, said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said the lack of interoperable communications is an issue of profound significance.

People, not technology, are the greatest obstacle to achieving interoperable communications, Boyd said. Public safety organizations that build cooperative agreements around tools and procedures can solve most emergency communications problems, he added.

Pascrell said he wanted the Federal Communications Commission to release analog broadcast spectrum used for television so that first responders can have it for radio communications. He criticized the FCC for allegedly dragging its feet in releasing the spectrum and not living up to its responsibilities to first responders.

The FCC released 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz range before Katrina hit, said Ken Moran, acting director of the Office of Homeland Security in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. It also released 50 MHz in the 3.5 GHz range for data amplification.

Federal law is one reason that more spectrum has not become available for first responders, Boyd said. But before additional spectrum is relinquished, at least 85 percent of affected areas must be able to receive high-definition television. Cable TV providers have not met that requirement, he said.

The House was scheduled to vote this afternoon on a bill to release more spectrum for first-responder use, Reichert said.


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