WASHINGTON – More than two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, communications between emergency personnel are still hindered by incompatible equipment and insufficient radio frequencies, officials told a congressional hearing Thursday.
Lawmakers and emergency officials at the hearing on “first-responder interoperability” said a lack of funds and a lack of communication between governments has kept federal, state and local agencies from building compatible systems as quickly as they should.
But they also said that the problem is not likely to be solved by throwing billions of dollars at communities for expensive, new equipment, if there is no guarantee that all jurisdictions get compatible, working equipment. Local and federal officials still do not have a concrete plan to improve the systems, they said.
“There are no perfect national solutions to interoperability,” Montgomery County Council member Marilyn Praisner said at the hearing. “The nuances of each region are too complex for a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Praisner, chairwoman of the National Association of Counties’ Telecommunications and Technology Committee, said heavy commercial use of radio bandwidth blocks some public safety officials from using their radio systems — crucial pieces of equipment for emergencies ranging from car accidents to terrorist attacks.
For example, she said, Anne Arundel County has immense problems with its public safety radio system, which operates on the 800-megahertz band. Emergency personnel in the county have trouble using portable receivers near commercial radio antenna sites that also operate on that same bandwidth.
Lawmakers said one option would be for the Federal Communications Commission to allocate bandwidth for public safety purposes only. But different jurisdictions use different radio systems, so transition would be difficult.
George Ake, the coordinator of the Capital Wireless Integrated Network, said it would be hard to convince agencies and municipalities to switch after they have already spent money to update emergency communication equipment on an existing band. Ake, who oversees a project to implement a single transportation and public safety network in the Washington, D.C., region, said governments are not likely to simply throw their current system away and invest in a new one.
Praisner, who is also chairwoman of a government alliance called TeleCommUnity, said another problem is that not enough local elected officials are at the bargaining tables. That means they may not know what to spend money on.
Lawmakers agreed that the government should set up a timetable for interoperability, allocate more resources for first responders and free up enough of the airwaves so that emergency communication is not interrupted.
“Somalia and Chad two years from now will have better interoperability” if action is not taken, said Rep. William J. Janklow, D-S.D.
“What we want to do here is get down to the bottom line,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville. “We need to be able to communicate beyond our own region and states. Crime has no geographical boundaries.”