Responder networks must be interoperable, experts say

The inability of local, state and federal emergency responders to communicate with one another gained attention after past disasters, but that attention did not translate into ways to make their communications systems interoperable. Now policymakers hope to harness the momentum after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to tackle the problem.

"God help us if 9/11 ever happens again," John Speight, public safety program manager for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said Thursday at the National Conference of State Legislatures spring meeting. "Let's not lose the momentum."

But that is easier said than done, Speight said, because state, local and federal officials must battle technology, money and spectrum-allocation issues, as well as try to coordinate thousands of law enforcement, fire and public safety entities around the nation.

There are many competing technologies and each federal agency wants the leeway to select the best system for its needs, he said, but that means they often cannot interact. "Technology is as much a burden as it is a solution," Speight said. "If the government picks a technological standard, it stifles innovation, but without a standard, interoperability won't happen."

Congested public airwaves and lack of available spectrum that would be adequate for public safety systems to interoperate also is a problem, said Juan Otero of the National League of Cities. The inability of broadcasters to complete the transition to digital television by 2006 leaves needed spectrum occupied, he said, and "in an election year, taking on broadcasters can be a little dangerous."

"The problems of public safety interoperability are not new," Otero said. "We've been dancing around these issues in Washington, but powerful interests have been putting back public safety interests."

Otero urged state lawmakers to support a bill, H.R. 3397, that would require the FCC to assign spectrum in the 700-megahertz band to public safety services and to permit their operations on those frequencies by 2007. He was not optimistic for action this year but urged lawmakers to champion similar legislation in the next Congress.

Within the discussion of the digital transition, the issue is usually attached to freeing the spectrum for advanced wireless services and "the public safety piece always gets left off the agenda," Otero said. That is not acceptable, he said, because "unfortunately, the homegrown nuts are just as dangerous as the foreign-born nuts. ... We have to use the collective energy" at the state and local level "to get Washington to solve the problem."

Money also is an issue because replacing communication systems is expensive. Speight urged state lawmakers to be sympathetic to requests for communications funding as long as the new systems would be interoperable.