Still tongue-tied, 10 years later: Let first responders talk to each other -- on public spectrum

Jun 1, 2011 Issues: Domestic Radicalization / Radicalization Hearings

By REP. PETER KING and SEN. KRISTEN GILLIBRAND
DAILY NEWS
June 1, 2011

Just as Americans will never forget where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, we will also remember May 1, 2011, when President Obama announced Osama Bin Laden had been killed. This was a moment of justice for many New Yorkers, 9/11 families and first responders. It was a day the good guys won. But there are still those who want to do us harm, and we must remain vigilant in keeping our country safe.

New Yorkers know better than anyone the constant threat that our country faces. The city remains the No. 1 target for terrorists around the world who want to kill Americans.

So it is baffling that nearly 10 years after the attacks of 9/11, one of the key recommendations from the 9/11 commission report has yet to be implemented. The commission identified insufficient interoperability among communications systems used by first responders during the attacks and rescue efforts at Ground Zero as a major problem that needs to be fixed.

Firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and other public safety professionals currently communicate on different frequencies and with different systems - creating barriers to providing a coordinated and efficient response during an emergency. It is alarming and unacceptable that any teenager with a smartphone can share more information than our emergency responders can. It is time to bring first responder technology into the 21st century.

The solution to this national security problem hasn't languished due to a lack of technological know-how. It has languished due to a lack of political will by Congress to create a public system tasked with maintaining a network devoted exclusively to public safety.

Opponents insist that we can rely on the private sector to build and maintain such a system; we strongly disagree.

As Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly pointed out in his testimony to Congress, "We know from past experience that we can't depend on systems run by the private sector. They are too susceptible to failure in a crisis. On Sept. 11 and after the 2009 crash of a commercial jet in the Hudson River, cell phone networks were deluged and police and fire communications over them became virtually impossible."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has introduced the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, and Chairman King has introduced the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011. We are urging Congress to pass these bills before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The legislation would provide our first responders and public safety officials with the critical interoperable radio airwaves needed to effectively communicate in the event a major response is needed.

Here is how it works. The bill would create the framework for the deployment of a nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband network for public safety by allocating 10 megahertz of spectrum, known as the "D Block," to the government for the purpose of public safety. This nationwide interoperable broadband network would finally enable first responders to communicate across jurisdictions and share critical data such as video feeds and up-to-date information in real time - making complex operations easier and safer.

The "D Block" would arm our men and women on the ground with the technology needed to share and disseminate information quickly and seamlessly, including receiving background checks, fingerprints, photos and videos instantly. Firefighters would be able to receive high-speed file downloads, including floor plans for a burning building. Police officers could use a hand-held device to look up outstanding warrants before arriving at a location. Emergency Medical Service workers could exchange diagnostic information about a victim with doctors while en route to the hospital.

Both bills are bipartisan and enjoy the enthusiastic support of law enforcement officials across the country.

To preempt some potential concerns: At a time when Congress is rightly focused on cutting spending, this legislation pays for itself, generating the revenue  for the development and deployment of this network by auctioning off a variety of spectrum. Nor would it place burdensome requirements on police forces and firefighters to give up the spectrum they currently use.

The President has called for the development and deployment of just such a nationwide network. The job is long overdue. Just as we did with the 9/11 health bill for our heroes, we must and can come together, Democrats and Republicans, and pass this legislation. And we should do it now so our heroes have the best technology available when duty calls.

Gillibrand, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from New York. King, a Republican, is a U.S. representative from Long Island who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.