First Responders to Congress: Action Now on Interoperability!
The firefighters, police officers, and concerned groups comprising the First Response Coalition www.FirstResponseCoalition.org issued the following letter to the chairs and ranking minority members of the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, and Select Committee on Homeland Security and the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee :
August 5, 2004
When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acted less than a month ago (July 8, 2004) to place Nextel’s bottom line ahead of the grave ” interoperability” crisis in police and firefighter communications that was highlighted amidst the horrors of 9/11, the First Response Coalition called on Congress to overrule the Commission’s ill-advised decision. Our recommendation was that Congress should earmark the proceeds from a lawful spectrum sale to address the problem of ” interoperability” that of police, firefighter, EMT, and other local emergency units to communicate with each other and with local, state and federal agencies.
We continue to urge that Congress get involved in this situation. In fact, we believe that recent developments make an extremely powerful case for immediate hearings on the interoperability crisis and the overturning of the FCC/Nextel spectrum grab, which was carried out in violation of the intent of Congress. Consider these recent developments that have unfolded since the FCC decision in July:
* Heightened Terror Alert: This past Monday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge elevated the threat level facing both Washington, D.C. and New York City. Not only are these the same metropolitan areas that were scarred by the horrors of 9/11, but they also are the places where the interoperability crisis in communications led needlessly to the deaths of dozens or possibly even hundreds of first responders and citizens. The fact that these
same cities are living once again under a very real terror threat and that the interoperability crisis remains unsolved three years after 9/11 makes it imperative for Congress to get involved in framing a resolution for the problem. The best and most affordable option available to federal lawmakers today: Use legitimate spectrum auction fees to address the interoperability problem once and for all. As an added benefit, this plan would address the Nextel-created interference issue, as well.
* 9/11 Commission Report Recommendations: The Coalition directs your attention to the 9/11 Commission Report (chapter 12, pages 397-398), which includes the following passages: “The attacks of September 11, 2001 overwhelmed the response capacity of most of the local jurisdictions where the hijacked airliners crashed … The inability to communicate was a critical element at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, crash sites, where multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions responded. The occurrence of this problem at three very different sites is strong evidence that compatible and adequate communications among public safety organizations at the local, state, and federal levels remains an important problem.” We agree with the 9/11 Commission that Congress needs to get involved directly in addressing the spectrum allocation controversy and recommend specific solutions. We further support the related 9/11 Commission recommendation: “Federal funding of such ( interagency communication) units should be given high priority …”
The First Response Coalition has developed a white paper, “It’s Time To Talk: Achieving Interoperable Communications For America’s First Responders,” which is available online at www.FirstResponseCoalition.org.
This report addresses the scope of the communications interoperability problem, examines the reasons public safety departments can’t communicate, and the importance of interoperability to first responders and the communities they protect. It also
explores the barriers to interoperability, including cost, lack of coordinated planning, and scarcity of spectrum resources. The paper concludes with the First Response Coalition’s plan to make public safety communications interoperability a national priority and create a funding mechanism that will allow first responders to obtain the communications equipment and infrastructure they desperately need.
The First Response Coalition believes that adequate funding for improving public safety communication systems is the highest priority. It Coalition advocates a common-sense solution: Congress requiring an auction for the frequencies at 1.9 GHz, which the FCC is giving away for free, and to then dedicate that money for public safety improvements. The First Response Coalition recognizes that low income, rural, and underserved communities lack the resources to upgrade their technology. It supports an accelerated regional deployment schedule to ensure that all public safety communications systems are interoperable by 2006, and that low-interest loans and loan guarantees are made available to assist underserved and economically-disadvantaged communities in obtaining the newest communications technologies.
This is an agenda that Congress should and must embrace as America experiences new terror threats and also takes stock of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Please feel free to call upon the First Response Coalition to provide testimony as you tackle the interoperability crisis and the interference problem. Not only does it make sense to address both problems at the same time, but America’s first responders and the people they serve will thank you for doing so.
Coordinator, First Response Coalition Volunteer firefighter, EMT and vice president of the Dauphin-Middle Paxton Fire Company #1, in Dauphin, Pennsylvania.
Editor’s Note: The First Response Coalition consists of citizens, individual first responders, and advocacy groups who are particularly concerned about first responders having the best possible communications capabilities. The First Response Coalition believes interoperability issues must be addressed by the FCC in any plan that reorganizes spectrum and will disrupt public safety communications systems across the country.
Since its launch in June 2004, the First Response Coalition has grown rapidly to include the National Black Police Officers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the California Seniors Coalition. In addition to Stilp and William Fox, commissioner, Metropolitan Fire Association, New York City, the Coalition’s original members include the Gray Panthers, the Black Chamber of Commerce and the American Corn Growers.