O’Malley and Mead: First Responders Need Dedicated Spectrum

Posted October 23, 2011 at 5:04am

Ten years ago, the way federal, state and local leaders view public safety was changed forever. Last month, we remembered and reflected on that tragic day, and although the safety and security of our country has always been a priority, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, put homeland security at the forefront of our minds and committed us to being better prepared to prevent, respond to and recover from attacks and disasters.

The results of that commitment are evident. We have reorganized state agencies to address natural and man-made threats, encouraged citizens and communities to be prepared for the unthinkable, and developed intelligence fusion centers and emergency operations centers to share critical information across multiple jurisdictions. Governors also reached a historic agreement with the Department of Defense to ensure the coordination of state and federal military forces during a disaster.

One critical tool, however, continues to elude us: a nationwide interoperable communications network for our first responders. Firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel must be able to communicate with one another in real time if they are to preserve life and protect property.

For instance, a nationwide network could allow 911 systems to receive text messages and relay them to the nearest police officer or local fire station. It could allow police responding to a hostage situation in a school to download building blueprints and access security camera footage before arriving on the scene. Or it could send firefighters in the field real-time information regarding the spread of wildfires to allow them to more effectively target their efforts and stay out of harm’s way.

Currently, first responders must rely on commercial networks for mobile data services. As the recent earthquake on the East Coast, Hurricane Irene and Missouri River flooding remind us, we never know when or where disaster will strike. What we do know is that after such events, commercial systems become overloaded with a surge in demand that prevents calls and text messages from getting through. Requiring first responders to rely on these systems puts lives at risk and is simply unacceptable.

The keys to providing such a communications tool for first responders are straightforward: dedicated radio spectrum to carry the information, funding to build the system and governance rules to coordinate nationwide communications in the most effective way.

Fortunately, Congress has a unique opportunity to transform dramatically how first responders communicate and deliver life-sustaining services to our citizens. Pending before Congress is bipartisan legislation authored by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to finally tackle all three critical issues.

First and foremost, the bill would dedicate spectrum known as the D block to serve public safety. This move would lay the cornerstone for providing our first responders with a single communications network and a single device that will work seamlessly anywhere in the country.

Second, the bill would help pay for network development while simultaneously providing billions of dollars for deficit reduction through voluntary incentive auctions and the sale of additional spectrum — a rare win-win for public safety and fiscal responsibility.

Finally, it establishes a framework to begin a conversation about governance of the new public safety network. We believe governors and public safety leaders need a voice in how this mission critical system is built and managed to ensure that all areas of the country are served.

Unfortunately, despite significant bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress as well as overwhelming support from state and local elected officials and the public safety community, this critical legislation languishes.

We will never forget the brave men and women who selflessly put their lives on the line to help their fellow Americans a decade ago. Now, we call on Congress to take the final step to ensure that the first responders of the present and the future have the tools that they need to do their jobs and help save lives.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) are co-chairmen of the National Governors Association’s Special Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. This is the first in a series of pieces that Roll Call will run by state governors who want to convey a policy message to Capitol Hill.