DHS tech chief wants broadband for first responders

Access to high-speed networks would enable responders to receive federal broadcasts and warnings.

The Homeland Security Department's technology goals extend beyond ensuring that first responders' equipment is up to date and compatible, an agency official said Thursday.

Jay Cohen, the head of DHS' science and technology directorate, said all first responders should have broadband Internet access so they can get mass broadcasts and warnings from the federal government.

"We've got a lot of police departments [and] fire departments that don't even have a computer," Cohen told attendees of a conference in Washington for first responders.

He highlighted the importance of having access to all available data, pointing out that the department segregates the SAFECOM program to ensure radios are interoperable from broader response efforts housed within the Disaster Management program.

Still, interoperability issues remain a focus. Cohen said a DHS grants program to create an improved radio network is a top priority.

George Foresman, undersecretary for preparedness at DHS, earlier this month told Government Executive that interoperability is "less of an issue than it was two years ago." But he said some first responders remain hindered by communications mechanisms that respond to different bandwidths or simply have incompatible technology.

Now, he said, thanks to the government's push, industry representatives are receptive to producing compatible equipment.

"They already see where the market's going," Foresman said. "The market is for fully interoperable communication systems."

But some first responders are concerned the government and contractors are exercising too much control over the process. At a Wednesday congressional hearing, New York City Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly expressed concern about a "vendor driven" market. He told members of the House Homeland Security subcommittee that New York's first responders might not necessarily want to be restricted to one specific kind of bandwidth.

Kelly added that the NYPD should not be "restricted in how we use grant funding."

Foresman said DHS grants programs are flexible, but noted that the department must still set "program parameters" to determine eligibility.