Communications interoperability issues dominate hearing

Obstacles to achieving seamless communications between police, fire, ambulance and other first-responder agencies prompted sharp comments from lawmakers during a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing today.

Communications interoperability woes were prominent in the analysis of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The recent hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast region have brought new attention to the problem.

The Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology heard testimony from witnesses from the Homeland Security Department's Safecom e-government program and the National Communications System, the Federal Communications Commission, the Pentagon and the Agriculture Department's Forest Service.

The witnesses cited their agency's response to Hurricane Katrina as to how they are dealing with communications challenges.

For example, Peter Fonash, deputy manager of NCS, described how his agency had implemented a priority system for land line communication by federal officials called the Government Emergency Telephone Service, and its wireless counterpart, the Wireless Priority Service.

He noted that Katrina took down more than 3 million land line phones and numerous switching centers and 911 facilities, and destroyed as many as 2,000 cellular towers.

NCS officials fielded federal resources to support the communications industry and helped coordinate the hurricane response, he said. NCS is 'currently examining its actions regarding Hurricane Katrina, identifying issues and lessons learned, and developing recommendations,' Fonash said.

David Boyd, director of the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility in Systems and Engineering in DHS' Science and Technology Directorate, described the activities of the Safecom program. Much of that work involves forming methods for state and local agencies to cooperate. However, while Safecom has built a vision for improving communications, proper communications response to emergency will depend on a national plan.

"Only when these guidelines are universally, broadly recognized and followed will emergency responders and the larger public safety community be able to communicate effectively," Boyd said.

Each witness touted the achievements of their own agency. But collectively they pointed to problems'the cost of replacing the vast array of existing first responder equipment, spectrum availability and incompatible standards'as barriers to effective interoperability.

The spectrum situation described by Ken Moran, director of the FCC's Office of Homeland Security, fell particularly flat with Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.)

'I don't detect any sense of urgency" in the move to shift more spectrum to first responders, Pascrell told Moran.

Moran responded that the FCC already has increased first-responder spectrum and would transfer more when the transition to digital television is complete.

Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) honed in on the problem of proprietary standards and asked, "Is this a Motorola problem?' referring to the dominant vendor of first-responder radios.

Witnesses spoke circumspectly in response to Dicks' challenge, with Boyd responding that, 'It is true that there is a tendency to build proprietary components that protect your proprietary status.'

Rep. Nita Lowey (D.-N.Y.) challenged Boyd on the delay of the development of Safecom standards from 2004 to 2006. Boyd responded that he had been working closely with state and local agencies to build the standards.

Chairman Dave G. Richhert (R-Wash.) concluded that 'This is an important area" that the subcommittee likely would revisit.

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