FEMA Overhaul Debate Stalls Funds for Interoperable Radios

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

House Republicans are blocking an attempt to spend $3.1 billion to help the nation's police and fire agencies communicate in emergencies as Congress debates a proposed overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As both parties intensified the election-season rhetoric over national security, Democrats accused GOP leaders of shortchanging the well-documented need to improve communication among first responders. Republicans acknowledged that they do not want to spend billions prematurely, saying more planning and coordination are needed.

"It is just so unfair for the White House not to support the full funding of solving the interoperability problem," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff rebuffed calls for dedicated federal grants to upgrade equipment, coordinate plans, train emergency workers and adapt common technology standards. Instead, he said, state and local leaders must first agree on radio codes and protocols.

"This is not, frankly, a technology issue," Chertoff told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday. "This is an issue of having community leaders come to an agreement."

The inability of police and firefighters to talk by radio was a critical factor after the 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, according to the Sept. 11 commission.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that 23 percent of the nation's 60,000 police and fire departments cannot communicate with each other over the radio, one-third cannot talk to county sheriffs, and most cannot talk to state or federal agencies. Governors and state homeland security advisers say the issue is their top priority, according to the National Governors Association.

At the end of this year, the federal government was supposed to make available to first responders a slice of the broadcast spectrum now held by television broadcasters. Congress has changed the deadline to June 2009 and set aside $1 billion for gear.

The Department of Homeland Security has provided $2.1 billion to states and localities since 2003. But congressional analysts say that annual grants are not enough and that "several billions" will be needed to upgrade the nation's $100 billion infrastructure for public safety communications.

The federal government has been slow to set gear and technology standards, which private companies also resist for proprietary reasons. Local governments often fail to plan or train together or to coordinate major equipment purchases.

For now, the Department of Homeland Security has provided equipment to the nation's 10 highest-threat cities that enables commanders to patch into each other's radio systems. The department is surveying the 50 states and the 75 largest urban areas before taking the next steps.

"I would hesitate to dedicate a huge amount of money upfront without the input of the localities themselves to make a determination of what they feel they need and how far they've come," Chertoff said.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan Senate bill to overhaul FEMA after Hurricane Katrina proposed $3.3 billion over five years in interoperable communications grants. The bill was approved in committee, but the money was dropped when GOP leaders decided to include the FEMA overhaul in a must-pass $33 billion Homeland Security spending bill. Thompson said his efforts to revive the proposal have been rebuffed.

Yesterday, state emergency management officials and congressional aides said talks have bogged down over funding and jurisdictional fights, including whether to rename FEMA and whether to bring the nation's disaster laws in line with recommendations made in post-Katrina government reports.

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