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Cammack Opening Statement on First Responder Communications

October 7, 2021

Cammack Opening Statement on First Responder Communications

WASHINGTON, DC – Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL), Ranking Member of the Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Subcommittee, delivered the following opening statement in a subcommittee hearing entitled, “20 Years After 9/11: Examining Emergency Communications.”

Ranking Member Cammack’s Opening Statement (as prepared for delivery)

I would like to thank Chairwoman Demings for convening this important hearing today on first responder communications.

First responders play an invaluable role in communities across America and ensuring they have the necessary training, equipment, funding, and resources is a top priority of mine. I look forward to working with the Chairwoman to address some of the challenges currently facing our first responders, an issue I know she also cares very deeply about.

Last month, we mourned the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The 9/11 Commission report, which recounts events surrounding that tragic day, calls attention to the fact that lack of communication among emergency personnel, 911 call centers, and individuals in the towers sowed confusion, ultimately costing lives. One FDNY chief who was stationed in the North Tower is quoted in the report as saying, “people watching on TV certainly had more knowledge of what was happening a hundred floors above us than we did in the lobby…[W]ithout critical information coming in…it’s very difficult to make informed, critical decisions.”

After first responders experienced similar communication challenges during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress passed the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA). This legislation took significant steps to standardize emergency communications across the country by establishing the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP). As a result of the work accomplished by the NECP, a survey conducted in 2018 found that 84 percent of state and territorial respondents reported significant or some improvement in the strengthening of their communications operability.

PKEMRA also helped provide state and local first responders with access to grant funding to develop and implement Statewide Communication Interoperability Plans to enhance interoperable communications for public safety and officials at all levels of government.

In 2012, Congress took additional steps to improve our nation’s emergency communication networks by passing the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. This legislation established the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is responsible for overseeing the buildout and operation of a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. This dedicated public safety network has been critical in ensuring that during a disaster, necessary information is able to reach first responders on the ground.

While both PKEMRA and the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act made significant improvements to emergency communications, many challenges still remain.

One such challenge facing first responder networks is the very real threat of a cyberattack. In fact, a recent survey conducted by SAFECOM found that, “over a third of organizations indicated that cybersecurity incidents have had an impact on the ability of their emergency response providers and government officials’ ability to communicate over the past five years.”

The study also found that, “fire departments and organizations located in rural areas tend to be least prepared for cybersecurity attacks […] with 62% of fire departments indicating that they do not conduct any cybersecurity planning.” And over 55% of organizations surveyed indicated that lack of funding is the reason that they do not invest in cybersecurity.

First responders in rural areas, like Putnam County, Florida, oftentimes do not have the necessary funding to update their technology, and even when they are able to secure the necessary funds, the technology can be unreliable because of lack of coverage.

However, while advances in technology may lead to increases in cyber threats, technological innovations can also be revolutionary. Next Generation 911 enhances the capabilities of today’s 911 networks allowing compatibility with more types of communication to provide greater situational awareness to dispatchers and emergency responders. Next Generation 911 will enable 911 call centers to accept and process voice calls, video, photos, and text messages from responders and the public. This capability could really be a game changer – for those in need, and those responding to the call.

As we continue to work to address the challenges facing emergency communications networks, to improve capabilities across the board, we must work to ensure that we are not pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach that may not accommodate the unique needs of many first responders, especially those in rural communities.

I applaud the progress that has been made to improve first responder communications in the past 20 years and look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on what additional steps are needed to ensure first responders have the information and connectivity to continue serving our communities.