Push for new network for first responders

Jul 21, 2011 Issues: First Responder Communications

by TOM BRUNE  

WASHINGTON -- John Feal and his team of retired 9/11 first responders returned to Capitol Hill Wednesday with a new cause: to lobby for legislation to create a new national communications network for police and firefighters.

After spending the morning visiting Republican senators, Feal predicted his team would succeed as it did in December, when it helped persuade a partisan and divided Congress to pass a compromise version of the Zadroga 9/11 health bill.

"I guarantee this bill will pass by Sept. 11, I am that confident," said Feal, founder of the Feal Good Foundation that helps those harmed by 9/11. "Like the Zadroga bill in December, this bill saves lives."

The legislation would set aside a slice of broadband spectrum known as the D Block to create a high-speed national network for public safety officials. It would help first responders by fixing the problem they have talking to each other because their radios now often operate on different frequencies and don't connect, the bill's supporters said.

Yet lawmakers said the legislation faces hurdles.

It faces a crowded legislative calendar, and it's not clear if it will be wrapped into a deal on the debt ceiling or proceed as a stand-alone bill, said New York's' Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand at a news conference featuring Feal.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), passed out of committee on a 21-4 vote and is awaiting a full Senate vote. But the House version, sponsored by Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford), faces GOP opposition.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they prefer auctioning "block D" to the private sector and using the proceeds to pay off federal debt.

King said passage of the Senate bill would help his efforts in the House.

"We met with a lot of Republican leadership. A lot of Republicans are on board with this," Feal said of the Senate visits Wednesday. "We'll be back next week."