First responders want control of public-safety spectrum

Officials fear auction of RF frequencies could endanger access in emergencies

In an emergency, law enforcement and firefighting organizations don't want to compete for access to a public safety radio-frequency network, so they're petitioning Congress for control of the block of frequencies intended for that purpose. Officials say that the alternative -- auctioning that block of spectrum -- couldn't guarantee access.

“Local control of the network by public safety agencies is critical,” Chief Jack Parow, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told the House Homeland Security Committee March 30. “We cannot have commercial providers deciding what is or is not an emergency or what is the priority.… The lives of our firefighters and medics depend on this necessity.”

“The time to act is now,” said Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, first vice president of the National Sheriffs’ Association.


Related story:

Forget the money: Congress should allocate radio frequency band for public safety


Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill in February that would reallocate the D block directly to public safety agencies. President Barack Obama has also endorsed the reallocation approach.

However, radio spectrum policy is under the jurisdiction of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Several members of that committee support the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to auction the spectrum to commercial carriers, which would be required to prioritize public safety during emergencies.

The D block consists of 10 MHz of spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band. It is adjacent to another band controlled by public safety.

The public safety community has been requesting additional spectrum for more than a decade, but the issue gained momentum after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when the lack of interoperable communications systems among first responders at the World Trade Center was believed to be a contributing factor in firefighter deaths.

The FCC attempted to auction off the D block in 2008 with the stipulation that the buyer give priority to public safety, but the minimum bid was not met.

In related news, the two chairmen of the 9-11 Commission today endorsed direct allocation of the airwaves to public safety agencies, according to an article in The Hill newspaper.

Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) had previously been invoked as presumed supporters of a D block auction, the newspaper said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Reader Comments

Tue, Apr 5, 2011

All this should have been on the year-one 'to do' list for DHS. They have wasted more money on stupider things- a wall-to-wall inventory of all Public Safety radio systems, and a carrot and stick approach to get past the local and state level turf battles, would have been money well spent. Any agency that didn't want to play would put their frequency assignments at risk. Any agency that couldn't come up with cash for an upgrade would get aid. Radios would save more lives than SBI and TSA security theater. This ain't rocket science.

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