Newsday: First responders network nears approval

Newsday — by Tom Brune

WASHINGTON — After years of delay, the creation of a national broadband network that would allow first responders to easily communicate with each other is on the verge of becoming a reality, New York's senators said Thursday.

The assignment of broadband spectrum and $7 billion for the network was added to the payroll tax cut extension deal by negotiators Thursday, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.

Congress is expected to OK the package in a vote Friday.

"More than a decade after 9/11, we are going to finally establish the national network that will let emergency workers talk to each other so we can avoid repeating the communication failures of that tragic day," Schumer said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who joined Schumer in pushing for the network, called the step "a huge win for public safety" that fulfills a 9/11 Commission recommendation.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who filed the first bill to create a network, said the compromise that led to its inclusion in the package was "75 to 80 percent of what we wanted," but said it's still "a big victory."

Negotiators included the network in the tax-cut deal because it will be funded by auctions of broadcast spectrum that will raise at least $15 billion, enough to also help cover costs of the tax cut package and pay down the deficit, Schumer said.

But Thursday night, Schumer said, House GOP negotiators said they'd allow the public safety network but with no funding. "We said [we] would not sign on the dotted line unless the needed funds were restored," he said. The House backed down.

The compromise creates an independent First Responder Network Authority to develop and run the network, and gives first responders 9 years to transition to the new network.

The measure appropriates $7 billion of auction proceeds for creating and running the public safety network and updating equipment for first responders.

Approval of the network is seen as a companion step to the 2010 passage of the $4 billion Zadroga 9/11 health law for ailing first responders. John Feal, a 9/11 activist who brought first responders to Washington to lobby Congress on both bills, said, "It truly is a great day to be an American."