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Statement of Rep. Christopher Shays
July 20, 2004
Page 2 of 2
The lack of interoperability accurately reflects a lack of intergovernmental consensus on the urgency, feasibility and affordability of communication upgrades. Uncoordinated planning and funding cycles seem to keep that consensus beyond reach. Disjointed federal grant programs do little to guide state and local programs toward effective short or long-term solutions. And, the push for interoperability further complicates the already intense competition between public and commercial users for choice radio frequency spectrum bands.
The recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to clear interference from the 800 megahertz public safety bands should help improve the performance of critical systems, but crowded spectrum is only one aspect of the problem.
Another serious impediment is the lack of standardized information on the capabilities of current systems. Without broadly accepted technology and performance standards against which to measure progress, it is difficult to determine where we are, and all but impossible to know if we're getting anywhere.
After our hearing on these issues last November, we asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine current federal efforts to foster interoperability. The report issued today finds intergovernmental collaboration lacking and calls for standards, benchmarks and funding discipline to focus a currently rudderless process.
All the technical and regulatory jargon should not be allowed to obscure the central fact that lives are at stake. Selfless work on these issues by Monica Gabrielle, Sally Regenhard, Beverly Eckert, Mary Fetchet and so many other 9-11 family members reminds us of our solemn obligation to speak with one urgent voice to avoid future tragedies.
We appreciate the time, expertise and dedication our witnesses bring to this important discussion, and we look forward to their testimony.
Mr. SHAYS. At this time, the Chair would recognize the gentlelady, the very effective lady from New York, Carolyn Maloney.
Mrs. MALONEY. Thank you very much, Chairman Shays, and for your continued work on public safety and interoperability specifically. Your commitment to our Nation's first responders is evident, not only by the number of hearings, the report you requested on this subject, but also the legislation that you sponsored with me in May, the 9/11 Can You Hear Me Now Act, H.R. 4386.
Today we will have the opportunity to discuss the current state of interoperability in New York's metropolitan area, and we will have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Glenn Corbett, who is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and a constituent that I'm proud to represent. He, along with the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, provided some of the technical assistance in developing the 9/11 Can You Hear Me Now legislation.
I introduced the legislation and the Act because the current state of first responder communications in New York City is not anywhere near what it needs to be. While there have been a number of improvements since September 11, nearly 3 years later the New York City Fire Department still lacks the basic infrastructure to communicate effectively and true interoperability simply does not exist.
At the same time, we all know that New York continues to be a top terrorist target, and the protection of New York City must be a national responsibility. The lack of a fully functional communication system for the New York Fire Department is not only a threat to our firefighters' and New York residents' lives, but to all who visit the city.
The legislation that Chairman Shays and I introduced would mandate the Department of Homeland Security to provide a fully functional communication system to the New York Fire Department within 1 year of its passage. This communication system would include four components: radios, dispatch system, critical information dispatch system and a supplemental communications device for individual firefighters. This communications system would be required to work in all buildings and in all parts of the city, something that unbelievably does not happen now, and tragically did not happen on September 11.
The proposed legislation requires coordination with the city of New York and their planned upgrades of the emergency September 11 system and any interoperability initiatives with other public safety communications systems. If this system in New York was developed, it could be a model for large cities across the country, cities that are frequently mentioned as under the greatest threat of a terrorist attack.
Beyond doing whatever it takes to prevent future attacks, one of our greatest fears is that we will not have taken the lessons from September 11 and be prepared for the future. We know that there were terrible communications failures on September 11. According to an independent report by McKinsey and Co., it may have cost upwards of 100 firefighters their lives on September 11, and obviously many other independent residents and workers that were in
I can tell you that when I arrived at the Ground Zero central command on September 11 and asked what it was that was needed, they said, get us radios, we don't have any radios that work. Bill Young, at my request, and others, flew down radios that could work on the work site the next day.
The time to act is now. We need to do absolutely everything to ensure that we invest in the infrastructure and technology necessary for our first responders to communicate during every disaster. And that is why I'm also a co-sponsor of H.R. 440, The CONNECT First Responders Act. This legislation will significantly enhance the Federal Government's effort to achieve this critical objective by creating, first of all, and fully authorizing, the Office of Wireless Public Safety Interoperability Communications within the Department of Homeland Security. And giving this office the authority and annual budget to work with Federal, State, and local stakeholder to develop and implement a national strategy to achieve interoperability.
Second, establishing a new grant program dedicated to achieving communications interoperability nationwide. We need both of these acts to be passed and brought into law, because we need to do absolutely everything to protect our citizens from any future attack. It is obviously 101 to say that we need to have a radio system that works. We did not have one on September 11. We still do not have
I hope we hear some answers today from our distinguished panelists. Thank you all for being here, and thank you, Mr. Corbett, for coming, too.
Mr. SHAYS. I thank the gentlelady.
At this time the Chair would recognize Mr. Turner.
Mr. TURNER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I want to thank you for holding this hearing, and for your continued effort to make certain that our country's response to the terrorist threat is appropriate. The need for communication interoperability took center stage following the terror attacks in New York and Washington, DC. That event showcased the difficulty of first responders even in the same community to communicate with one another.
The inability to communicate becomes an even larger issue as you look at Federal and State agencies working together. This subcommittee, under the chairman's leadership, held a field hearing in Stamford, CT, where Mrs. Maloney was present. And there it was clear that the issue for agencies to talk to one another was very important in the issue of responding to a terrorist threat. My community, Dayton, OH, held a weapons of mass destruction attack exercise prior to September 11th. And there the inability to communicate was identified as a major hurdle in providing a coordinated response.
The Federal Government has a very important role to play in ensuring that communication interoperability exists among Federal, State and local agencies. However, it is important that the Federal Government does not operate in a vacuum, ignoring the lessons and advice of local first responders. Local and State governments should be active participants in any effort to ensure seamless communication.
And we thank the chairman for his continued effort in not only looking for a solution but continuing to focus on this process as we move forward.
Mr. SHAYS. I thank the gentleman.
Mr. Ruppersberger. I too thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your leadership in the critical homeland security priority. Both Republican and Democratic leadership of this committee have committed to keeping this issue on the congressional radar screen. I think it is entirely necessary and appropriate.
Until now, my background has been local leadership. Along with many of my colleagues on this committee and throughout the House, I am concerned about the needs of local first responders, our front line soldiers in the war on terrorism. We learned many expensive lessons on that tragic September day almost 3 years ago. One of the most correctable was the need for first responders to be able to communicate.
Terrorist attacks and all other hazards requiring police and firefighters to respond do not know county, city, State or even regional boundaries. So when an event occurs and people run into danger to save innocent lives, they should be able to talk to one another. It doesn't get any more basic than that.
This revelation is not new. Yet we are almost 3 years later in trying to decide how this should work. There are three fundamentals to determine regarding interoperability: what are localities doing now; what sort of national standards should we set to transcend inherent jurisdictions and boundaries; and how will we pay for this technology. We need a national status report that shows us what is happening at the local level. Progress requires a clear and accurate picture of what is happening in each State, how local elected and local first responders have been involved in the development of State plans and how much of that effort has focused on the big issues of interoperability.
At a time when we have incredible spending levels to fight the war on terrorism abroad, as I believe we should, I think we need an equal commitment to prioritize Homeland Security needs. Our first responders, our hometown troops, need our help, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to move this issue forward.
Mr. SHAYS. Mr. Tierney.
Mr. TIERNEY. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I just want to join my colleagues here in acknowledging the extent of this particular problem and knowing that since the events of September 11th, we have exposed what's been a longstanding and complex problem with our public safety agencies.
Even the 9/11 Commission's recent report indicates that many lives possibly could have been saved had we had the system in place. It goes back, of course, to the Oklahoma City bombing, where after that study showed that the first responders had to use runners to carry messages from one command center to another because the responding agencies used different emergency radio channels, different frequencies and different radio systems.
In order to achieve communications interoperability, which is probably the highest priority issue for our public safety community,
April report from GAO reported that project SAFECOM had made very little progress. The most recent report indicates that there is still a great distance to go. It cited a lack of consistent executive commitment and support and an inadequate level of interagency collaboration.
So 8 years after the final report and detailed recommendations to improve interoperability from the Federal Government's Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee, and over 2 years after the initiation of Project SAFEČOM, it doesn't seem that we've made much progress on this front. Secretary Ridge has stated that there are immediate steps the Departments can take while we focus on long range integrated solutions. We agree with that.
The Department of Homeland Security should be providing dedicated annual funding for both short term and long term enhancements to State and local interoperable communications systems. The administration has to address the disjointed Federal approach to interoperability by clearly assigning principal responsibility for communications interoperability to one office in the Federal Government.
Along with Mrs. Maloney and others, we've introduced Connecting the Operations of National Networks of Emergency Communications Technologies for First Responders Act, the so-called CONNECT for First Responders Act, that should address most of these issues. The act would replace the ineffective interagency group, at least as the GAO says it is, known as Project SAFECOM, that currently oversees the Federal interoperability efforts with a unified office within the Department of Homeland Security. It would provide this office with a dedicated annual budget, charge it with working with Federal, State and local stakeholder to develop and implement a national strategy to achieve interoperability. That should provide us, at least head us in the right direction.
Without a robust, consistent budget and the necessary authority, I think our efforts are going to continue to fail in this area. So this legislation would substantially increase the role of the new office in accelerating and implementing nationwide interoperable communications. It would authorize $50 million for fiscal year 2005 for the administration of the office. That would be more than double the $22 million that the administration has requested for SAFECOM in fiscal year 2005.
The bill would establish a new Department of Homeland Security grant program dedicated to achieving communication interoperability nationwide, funding both immediate and long term solutions for our communications needs. Like the Assistance to Firefighters grant program, the bill authorizes the Secretary to make direct grants to local governments and public safety agencies, but also authorizes grants to State governments.
I for one, and I think others joining me, continue to be disappointed that this administration insists on adding an extra level of bureaucracy by putting these matters through the States instead of down to the local communities. The Fire Act, the COPS grant with the grants directly to the local communities in my estimation has worked far more effectively than the process that we now see, working on Department of Homeland Security grants.