Key Democrats back communications grant program

Senior Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday urged Congress to create a grant program to help cities update their emergency communications in order to communicate across jurisdictions.

The lawmakers said such a program is needed given a new report from the Homeland Security Department that found gaps in such interoperability among emergency responders.

Incoming House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said more than five years has passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which emergency responders died due to a lack of interoperable communications.

"Time and again, the lack of interoperable communication has hindered the ability of our first responders to successfully do their jobs," Thompson said in a statement. "The only way to truly address this problem is to create an interoperability grant program that provides guidance and exclusive funding for states and cities to wisely build out their communications systems without forcing them to choose over funding their bridges and water supply."

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said she "will fight to pass legislation to finally establish a federal grant program for interoperable communications" within the coming weeks.

A package of security measures that Democrats are expected to unveil next week also will address shortfalls in interoperability, a Democratic leadership aide said. It is unclear if the package would authorize additional funding toward that goal.

Key House Republicans support more funding for interoperable communications, including outgoing Homeland Security Chairman Peter King of New York and outgoing Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert of Washington. But Republicans and Democrats appear to differ over how best to improve interoperability.

Thompson tried unsuccessfully last year to authorize $3.1 billion for interoperable communications as part of a bill to reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Instead, that bill included measures authored by Reichert that would have required communities to have standards and plans for buying and using interoperable communications.

"I would support additional funding to help assist with improving the remaining emergency communications issues," Reichert said. "However, we've already spent over $2 billion on emergency communications since 2003, and we continue to see problems. ... We must spend national security funds effectively, not politically."

A GOP aide noted that almost every Democrat, including Thompson and Lowey, voted against a 2005 bill to reallocate airwaves that reserved $1 billion for interoperable communications. That funding must be spent in 2007, the aide said.

"The Reichert bill, already signed into law in September, will actually do much more to address the problems exposed by the [department's] interoperability report than simply throwing more money at the states," the aide said.

A Democratic aide said the 2005 bill was massive and included many measures Democrats did not support. "I don't think it's fair to say we voted against an interoperable grant program," the aide said.

The report found that urban areas have improved their tactical interoperability, but solutions often are not available regionally and are far from seamless in many areas. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said his department will ensure that the highest-risk urban areas have interoperable systems by the end of 2007 and that all states have it by the end of 2008.

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