Better Communications Needed
The federal government must recognize the important role played by local governments and provide streamlined and more flexible funding, improved regional cooperation and a faster delivery of radio spectrum for emergency communications, says Mayor Rob Drake of Beaverton, Ore., speaking for the National League of Cities (NLC).
Drake testified on behalf of NLC before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology.
“No one should lose his or her life because public safety officials cannot communicate with one another,” he said.
“NLC’s wish is for the Department of Homeland Security to make greater strides on interoperability,” Drake continued. “Action is necessary now because no one knows when or where the next natural or man-made crisis may strike that demands a rapid response and seamless communications among and between first responders and others engaged in public safety. Only the federal government can remedy the current availability shortage of broadcast spectrum for public safety needs across the nation.”
Drake pointed to the Portland-area Regional Emergency Management Group (REMG) as a model for regional cooperation; the group collaborates on disaster planning with members such as the American Red Cross, local utility providers and local and global businesses in the Portland region.
Key REMG initiatives include the identification and publication of regional emergency transportation routes; development of an emergency alert system in coordination with area broadcasters; voluntary agreements on staff deployments and responses; and a regional disaster debris management plan.
A member of NLC’s Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Advocacy Committee and the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM group, Drake also stressed that local governments “seek partnering and financial assistance from Congress to implement local and regional plans … New duties placed on law enforcement related to Homeland security have shrunk budgets … NLC urges the federal government to assist all municipalities in advancing their public safety capabilities without imposing inflexible compliance guidelines.”
Drake offered four recommendations for Congress to improve communications between and among first responders:
Elevate the visibility of project SAFECOM: “Project SAFECOM at the Department of Homeland Security is a great example of a federal agency incorporating the input of local governments to improve interoperable communications plans and guidelines,” Drake said. “Elevate the visibility of Project SAFECOM and its mission because interoperable communications influences hometown security directly.”
Build on the “spine” of existing communications networks: The federal government should design programs that benefit first responders at the local level, but within a national framework. In particular, the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission should continue their efforts to improve wireless 911 or E-911 services.
Funding flexibility: “Congress should allow more flexibility in the use of federal public safety funds for upgraded technology communication systems and training,” Drake said. “The federal government should provide funding directly to local governments for Homeland security, emergency preparedness and response because we are the initial focal point of all disaster mitigation and recovery activities.”
Accelerate the federal commitment to a “date certain” for the return of the analog spectrum: Drake urged Congress to lead and, in fact, work to accelerate the effort to return essential radio spectrum for emergency communications, now slated for February 2009. “More lives than necessary may be lost between now and then because of a lack of spectrum,” he said.
During the question and answer session of the hearing, Drake was asked about dealing with different options and choices in technology decisions.
Drake responded, “We’re not just looking for new technology. We’re looking for the ability to find the funding to get us the technology. In many cities just affording the basics is difficult. … There are plenty of places to find the right technology that should be used, but how to fund the technology is the question.”