Congress wants emergency comms office at DHS

Congress is calling for the Homeland Security Department to establish an Office of Emergency Communications to tackle the kind of long-standing problems that hindered first responders on Sept. 11, 2001, and again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The office, working under the purview of the assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications, would centralize and coordinate emergency communications work at DHS and promote interoperability among public safety systems at federal, state and local agencies.

The House and Senate included the provision in their conference report on the fiscal 2007 DHS Appropriations Act. Rep. David Reichert (R-Wash.) introduced it as the 21st Century Emergency Communications Act of 2006, and it would amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

The provision directs the office to develop a national emergency communications plan, which would outline ways to ensure that first responders and relevant government officials can communicate during natural and man-made disasters. To do that, it would include recommendations for voluntary standards to ensure interoperability among emergency communications systems.

Additionally, the plan would identify what interoperable capabilities emergency responders need to continue talking with one another and with federal, state and local officials during an emergency. It would include short- and long-term solutions for guaranteeing those capabilities and overcoming obstacles.

The plan would also provide a time frame for deploying nationwide emergency communications systems.

According to Congress, the office should take over DHS' role on several interagency projects. That includes Safecom, which seeks to improve public safety communications and interoperability, and the Integrated Wireless Network, a joint effort by DHS and the Justice and Treasury departments to connect 2,500 sites including cities, highways, borders and ports.

Other responsibilities include:

  • Fostering the development of and technical assistance for interoperable communications for state, regional and tribal governments.
  • Promoting standards and best practices and ways to share them.
  • Establishing a national response capability, including training state and local employees to use communications equipment.
  • Ensuring continued communications among federal agencies in times of disaster.
  • Establishing requirements for interoperable emergency communications capabilities for DHS’ public safety radio and data communications systems, excluding alerts and warning devices.
  • Reviewing state and local governments’ plans for interoperability.
The provision also calls for regional emergency communications coordination working groups composed of industry and government officials who will determine and report on the sustainability and interoperability of communications systems and coordinate support networks for use during disasters.

Within a year of the act becoming law, the office should assess what communications capabilities responders have, how interoperable their systems are and what they need to maintain contact in emergencies, the report states.

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