Police and fire departments across the country are better coordinated when disaster strikes across municipal lines but serious gaps remain in public safety communications, according to remarks at a Senate hearing Wednesday on the state of emergency communications 10 years after the 9/11 attacks.
A key recommendation from the 9/11 Commission was setting aside more spectrum for public safety so police and fire agencies from different jurisdictions could more easily communicate. Less than two months before the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, there has been a flurry of legislative action on the issue but resolution remains years away.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Philadelphia Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he works with officials in Pennsylvania and several counties in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey through a communications committee created after Sept 11.
“A terrorist attack or a major catastrophic event knows no municipal, state or federal boundary and public safety organizations across the country [must] plan and coordinate their responses,” Ramsey said.
But former D.C. police chief Ramsey said if a disaster crossed from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, or spread out across neighboring states, it would not be easy for all of the police and fire agencies responding to the scene to talk to each other.
“We could probably patch voice communications but [sharing] data would be difficult,” he said.
Without a national network, local police and fire departments continue to buy communication equipment that best suits their own budget and needs. A single police radio can cost more than $5,000, officials said at the hearing. If a national network was in place, public safety advocates say, governments might be able to spend less on equipment through bulk purchases; the possibility of jurisdictions dealing with incompatible equipment while responding to an emergency might also be reduced.
Several pending bills in Congress support giving first responders a dedicated piece of spectrum, known as the 700 MHz D-Block, for a state-of-the-art public network. Another piece of proposed legislation favors allowing the Federal Communications Commission to hold “voluntary incentive auctions” with commercial bidders, likely to include wireless network operators who say they need the spectrum for commercial use. A portion of those auction proceeds would fund the new broadband public safety network.
“Public safety responders need the ability to have the most accurate, reliable information and be able to communicate directly and instaneously with their assistant and supporting responders,” said hearing witness Michael Varney, Connecticut’s Statewide Interoperability Coordinator.
To see the full list of witnesses and read their testimony from the hearing ‘Ten Years After 9/11: Improving Emergency Communications,’ click here.