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Lawmakers criticize federal officials on emergency response communications

FCC accused of lack of urgency on interoperability issues.

Members of a House Homeland Security subcommittee lashed out at Federal Communications Commission officials Wednesday for their lackluster efforts on encouraging the development of communication systems that can work across jurisdictions.

Long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "the FCC dropped the ball" on such interoperability by not giving emergency responders the "necessary networking and bands," said Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, the panel's ranking Democrat. The agency "left our first responders out to dry, and somebody's got to be held accountable."

The FCC has taken more of an interest in curtailing obscenity and approving communications mergers than public safety, Pascrell complained.

He accused Ken Moran, director of the FCC's Homeland Security Enforcement Bureau, of a lack of urgency on interoperability. Pascrell pressed Moran on what the agency has done since 2001.

Moran pointed to the 24 megahertz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band that the commission will make available to first responders once the transition from analog to digital television is complete.

"That's after the fact," Pascrell said, before questioning whether Moran was listening to subcommittee members "with one ear."

Subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert, R-Wash., acknowledged that "some progress has been made" via the digital TV legislation before Congress. But Reichert, a former police officer, added that he shares Pascrell's "passion" on the issue.

Reichert said interoperability problems did not suddenly begin on 9/11 but have been plaguing emergency responders for decades. Reichert said that when he was a law enforcer in the early 1970s, he tried to notify fellow officers of an armed suspect lying in wait. But his radio failed, and he was forced to tackle the young offender to prevent him from shooting unsuspecting colleagues. "That's not five years ago, that's almost 30 years ago," he said.

But when asked about the Homeland Security Department's biggest vulnerability, SAFECOM Director David Boyd said the issue is "not technical." Once local communities learn to work together, the basic technology falls into place, he said. "We need leadership and commitment for that to happen." SAFECOM is part of Homeland Security's science and technology directorate.

Funding is a major issue, given that local communities must pay for system upgrades, the FCC's Moran said. The agency is working on plans to eliminate interference, primarily in the 800 MHz band of spectrum, he said, calling money the biggest issue.

"Is Motorola the problem?" Rep. David Dicks, D-Wash., asked Boyd, referring to the main provider of emergency communications equipment.

Boyd was reluctant to blame one manufacturer but acknowledged that the private sector "has a tendency to build proprietary components that are hard to link" and become tied to one company. Homeland Security is trying to move toward a more open system, he said.

That could include Internet protocol systems, Boyd said. Officials must comprehend that catastrophic communications failures often include telephone lines, which largely act as the conduit for the Internet. But Internet protocol-based systems, which differ from the Internet at large, offer "powerful capabilities" and the "real possibility for serious interoperability," he said.