Senate panel OKs grants for first responder communications

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday approved a measure that would authorize the Homeland Security Department to dole out $3.3 billion over the next five years to enable first responders to communicate better during an emergency.

The bill, S. 1725, would authorize $400 million in state grants to strengthen emergency communications systems next year and increase the amount annually to $1 billion by 2010. It would establish an office of emergency communications, interoperability and compatibility within the Homeland Security Department. The office would replace the department's interoperability and compatibility unit proposed earlier this year by the Bush administration.

Lawmakers want the new office to create a comprehensive research and development initiative to solve technology and policy problems that have hindered the government's progress on the issue. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the panel's top Democrat, said the office must find new technology to ensure sustainable emergency communications following a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Legislators focused on the issue after reports of emergency workers being unable to communicate with one another in the critical hours after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast states and decimated telecommunication systems. The crisis echoed the problems faced by New York City firefighters who could not communicate effectively after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"This bill seeks to remedy the communications nightmare we saw in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast -- and make sure we don't have the same nightmare in future disasters," Lieberman said earlier this week when he introduced the bill.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., co-wrote the bill.

Collins said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has not notified her when the legislation could come to the floor, but added Katrina-related legislation is a "top priority" for lawmakers. Frist earlier this month expressed support for resolving the communications debacle after touring the devastated region.

Before approving the bill, the panel approved by voice vote five amendments, including provisions requiring officials to focus on computer modeling and simulation to create interoperable systems.

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