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Senators request $5 billion for emergency networks

Proposal urges "immediate" funds following disunity of the radio network used by first responders during Hurricane Katrina.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, senators are clamoring for billions of dollars to enhance the communications network that first responders rely on during emergencies.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, has proposed that Congress provide $5 billion in "immediate" funds intended "for the basic hardware that allows emergency responders to talk with one another and coordinate their efforts," according to a press release from her office.

The proposal, co-sponsored by eight Senate Democrats, is one of a slew of proposed amendments to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill, which is currently under debate and could go to a vote later this week.

The brief, broadly phrased amendment would place the funding in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security, which would then pass it on as grants to state and local entities. Two months ago, Stabenow offered a similar addition to the Homeland Security appropriations bill, but her measure was defeated.

"Tragically, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, various law enforcement agencies and other first responders were unable to talk to one another, greatly hampering immediate relief and rescue efforts," Stabenow said in a press release. The same state of affairs, she added, occurred during the events of Sept. 11.

The trouble, she said, is that the radio communications systems used by emergency personnel in most communities nationwide are not fully "interoperable"--that is, various divisions, ranging from police and fire to homeland security and government officials, talk on different frequencies and often aren't able to connect with one another.

Stabenow cited statistics from a June 2004 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which found that 94 percent of the 192 cities surveyed do not have interoperable capability among their transportation departments, police, fire and emergency medical services.

The statistics are more favorable, however, when fewer players are involved. About two-thirds of the surveyed cities do have networks that are interoperable across police, fire and EMS, and more than 77 percent have linked at least their police and fire communications. About three quarters of the cities blamed their failure to achieve full interoperability on limited funding, the report said.

The idea of government-sponsored grants for such technology is hardly new. Both the Justice and Homeland Security departments already administer such funds, although they are not always earmarked specifically for tackling interoperability concerns. Several measures have been introduced in Congress over the years, including one proposed in June by Sen. Joseph Lieberman that would disperse $3.3 billion in grants over five years.

After witnessing the Katrina disaster firsthand, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, has also rallied for speedy action on the matter.

"It is difficult to coordinate even a lunch date with girlfriends or a fishing trip with your buddies without a telephone, radio or cell phone that works," Landrieu said, according to the press release from Stabenow's office.

"Yet the federal government expected us to evacuate and rescue hundreds of thousands of South Louisianans, from their homes, rooftops, nursing homes and hospitals without even these basic tools," she went on. "We don't need more studies, and for goodness' sake, we don't need another national tragedy to highlight the need for interoperability."