Commerce Department touts public safety grant program

Nearly $1 billion in grants is set aside for improving the ability of state and local public safety networks to communicate with each other across jurisdictions.

Commerce Department officials on Monday outlined how a federal grant program for public safety communications will be implemented.

The department's National Technology Information Administration, in consultation with the Homeland Security Department, has been tasked with allocating nearly $1 billion in grants to improve the ability of state and local public safety networks to communicate with each other across different jurisdictions. The grants will be awarded by the end of the year.

Congress has authorized NTIA, which advises the White House on telecommunications issues, to transfer roughly $960 million as part of the public safety interoperable communications grants program. The money will is being allocated for the general purpose of helping state, local and federal first responders communicate better during natural or man-made disasters.

The applications will be due one month after grant guidance is issued in July. Grants will be awarded in September. The money will be available to public safety agencies in all of the states and territories.

At a public meeting, Commerce Department Program Specialist Laura Pettus said draft guidelines are being finalized. She said the federal government is not going to dictate interoperability solutions to states and localities but that grant applicants will be required to address certain questions, such as how they intend to improve spectrum efficiency.

Pettus did not provide any advanced details about what the guidance may entail, though she did note that NTIA is planning to use Homeland Security's "risk-based" grant formula as a starting point. She also said NTIA is looking to direct no less than 80 percent of the grants to local public safety entities.

John Bunting, a regional inspector general for audits at the Commerce Department, advised the audience, which included officials from both the private and public sector, how to avoid auditing problems in drafting grant requests. He said the grant program is going to offer an important opportunity for public safety officials to improve their infrastructure.

"We have one time and one time only to get this right," he said.

Interoperability has been a buzz word on Capitol Hill since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The issue took center stage again in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast region.

Funds for the interoperability grants are being borrowed from the anticipated auction of the 700 mhz spectrum that will be relinquished by television stations as they make the congressionally mandated switch to digital signals.

In an interview, Rocky Lopes, a homeland security project manager for the National Association of Counties, said he hopes federal officials recognize the importance of local first responders in emergencies as funds are allocated.