DHS official emphasizes importance of interoperable communications

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The development of communications systems capable of functioning across jurisdictions is a critical component of emergency preparedness, a senior Homeland Security Department official told a group of state lawmakers here on Monday.

But the deployment of such interoperable communications systems will require funding and coordination among state and local emergency responders, Tracy Henke, the department's assistant secretary for grants and training, said at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Interoperability is a mission-critical capability," she told the conference's task force on homeland security and emergency preparedness.

Homeland Security is negotiating the transfer of $1 billion from the Commerce Department to fund the development of interoperable communications systems, according to Henke. She said the cash, which has been generated through spectrum sales, will help boost interoperability projects throughout the country.

But Henke said it also is vital that some emergency responders take the first step of deploying adequate communications networks before they focus on making them work across jurisdictions. "We have areas that don't have basic operability still," she said.

Henke also told the task force that the department is re-evaluating its criteria for allocating grants but that she only expects minor changes before next year. She stressed that the department distributes the grants within the limitations imposed upon them by congressional budgets.

The department earlier this year announced a 40 percent cut in anti-terrorism grant funding for the New York and Washington metropolitan areas for fiscal 2006, a decision that has been widely criticized by federal, state and local lawmakers.

Henke said the department is working to make the process more transparent by giving state and local officials opportunities to see what items are being considered before grants are authorized.

New York state Sen. Michael Balboni said it would be helpful to have more access and input in the process, but he said it is difficult for many at the state level to make time to conduct proper reviews because of their staffing levels.

Balboni also expressed concern about the criteria used to complete the department's database of national assets. He said he would have preferred that both the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building be counted as national icons and as critical infrastructure.

Henke said that congressional appropriators set timelines for the evaluation of grant applications and that the department must work within such timeframes.

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