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If catastrophe strikes tomorrow, are we ready?

Michael D. Gallagher and Larry Irving warn that emergency communications technology still dangerously lags behind.

If a major catastrophe struck the United States today our first responders would not have the communications capabilities they need to save lives. Our federal, state and local public safety officers lack "interoperability," the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently across jurisdictions. Currently, in most places in the United States, a state police unit cannot directly communicate with a local sheriff. Nor can a county fire chief talk directly to a local firefighting unit or to federal officials. This is not a new problem. The lack of interoperability for first responders affected the response capability and response times on Sept. 11, 2001 and hampered response during Hurricane Katrina, the first World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing. Our failure to provide modern communications capabilities poses a danger to first responders and to the people they risk their lives to protect.

The 9/11 Commission, correctly in our opinion, was strongly critical of our national failure to solve this dangerous problem. The commission recognized that in the midst of a crisis, first responders cannot talk to one another. Last month the Department of Homeland Security assessed communications interoperability in 75 metropolitan regions across the nation and found that while there has been considerable progress in planning and coordination, there still is much work to be done in implementing operation.

Ensuring interoperability will entail overcoming significant political, technological and financial challenges. It will also require a new way of thinking about and coordinating the activities of public safety officials at every level of government.

In January, the House of Representatives took another important step to improve interoperability by passing legislation that will fund grants for promising interoperable communications technologies. But more, much more, needs to be done. Two key goals must be ensuring more efficient use of radio spectrum and providing the necessary funding to test and deploy new communications technology.

It is encouraging that federal, state and local officials are beginning to demonstrate that leadership is focused on execution and real results. Congress and the White House built a strong foundation for change by enacting the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act (DTV)--legislation that was applauded by the 9/11 Commission.

The new law reallocates substantial radio spectrum currently being used by television broadcasters and gives 24 MHz of prime, newly-available communications spectrum to our nation's first responders to help facilitate interoperability. And the Federal Communications Commission is taking up the charge to ensure we maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of this spectrum in building an advanced, interoperable emergency communications network for use by public safety officials across the country.

The remainder of the DTV spectrum will be sold at auction to private bidders by the U.S. government. One billion dollars will be used to fund public safety communications upgrades. Billions more will go toward deficit reduction and other important programs.

Assuming the proposed 9/11 legislation presently pending passes both houses, yet another important legislative tool will be in place. We will be one step closer to ensuring interoperability. It is possible, in the very near term, for us to resolve the problem at hand. The appropriate spectrum has been allocated; the technology is available; and critical funding is beginning to flow. We have the wallet. We know the way. Now we just need the will.

We've taken many important steps in recent months, and the pace is picking up with recent DHS and FCC actions. Enacting the 9/11 recommendations by Congress is also very encouraging. That said, it will take more of the strong, consistent leadership we're seeing today to get us to where we need to be: a safer country because those entrusted with protecting us have the interoperable communications tools they need to do their job.