Funding levels to help emergency systems 'talk' differ
House and Senate to work out funding differences in conference.
The House and Senate must negotiate a significant gap in funding for a new security initiative to help emergency responders across state and federal jurisdictions talk to each other.
The House in May endorsed a $30.8 billion spending measure for the Homeland Security Department for fiscal 2006 that includes $41.5 million for the new interoperability and compatibility office. The Senate, which passed a similar version of the appropriations bill in July, backed only $15 million for the office. President Bush requested $20.5 million.
The two chambers plan to negotiate the final number this fall.
Despite cutting $5.5 million from Bush's request, Senate appropriators conceded in their committee report on the spending bill that the "lack of true interoperability within public-safety communications remains a critical stumbling block to effective response in multi-discipline, multi-jurisdictional emergencies." The Senate cut funding for several Homeland Security programs to direct more resources toward countering weapons of mass destruction and bolstering border security.
The inability of emergency responders to "talk" to each other became a highly contentious issue during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. Firefighters could not communicate during the tragedy and many died in the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. Since then, lawmakers and federal officials have been working to develop technology, reserve airwaves for public-safety officials and establish standards for equipment and procedures.
Homeland Security's science and technology division established the interoperability and compatibility office to consolidate and oversee efforts across the federal government. House appropriators directed the division to spend $10 million of the additional funding to expand the RapidCom program, which currently is helping 10 urban cities with the highest vulnerabilities connect existing technologies.
The division also oversees the nationwide SAFECOM Project to ensure that all public-safety officials can communicate across jurisdictions. That initiative has proven challenging for federal officials because U.S. communications networks are vast and disparate. Local communities buy 90 percent of their communications technology, which requires federal officials to consider immense capabilities and local procedures under the SAFECOM program, according to Homeland Security officials' testimony to Congress.
David Boyd, director of the SAFECOM project, said last September that it would take 15 to 20 years to connect the 60,0000 emergency workers across the country.
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