First aid for first responders

Senate bills boost <@SM>anti-terrorism, emergency warning technologies

Two bills introduced in the Senate could ease deployment of anti-terrorism and emergency warning technologies.

The Emergency Warning Act, S. 118, introduced Jan. 9 by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., calls for development of a national emergency warning system and authorizes $10 million in fiscal 2004 for the effort.

The First Responder Support Act, S. 45, would make changes to the Office for State and Local Government Coordination in the Department of Homeland Security, aimed at improving coordination between the agency and state and local government first responders.

The first-responder provision was part of the Homeland Security Act, but was taken out last year near the end of deliberations. When Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., introduced the bill Jan. 7, he said the measure is one of his top priorities in the 108th Congress.

The bill would establish a federal liaison on homeland security in each state to coordinate between the Department of Homeland Security and state and local first responders. It also would direct the agencies within the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate and prioritize their activities that support first responders.

An advisory committee would be established in the first-responder community to identify and streamline effective programs.

"While I commend the administration for raising the funding dedicated to first responders in the president's budget, I am concerned that new layers of bureaucracy and reorganization could reduce these funding levels or, just as harmful, put up barriers to first responders actually receiving these funds," Feingold said in introducing the bill.

"My legislation would promote effective coordination among federal agencies under the Department of Homeland Security," and ensure that first responders can help federal agencies, and the new agency, improve programs and future initiatives, he said.

John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices in Washington, said the states applaud any effort that will allow better coordination with the federal government.

The governors "do want the [federal] money [for first responders] in a timely fashion. They would like it to go through them, so they could apportion it," he said.

Joseph Lees, executive director of the Homeland Protection Institute in Herndon, Va., said first responders have been frustrated "by the lack of coordination among the various federal stovepipes of organizations" supporting them directly and through the states. "There are efforts under way to improve coordination."

Lees said the administration should be given the chance to try to resolve this issue internally "before Congress adds more prescriptive requirements."

When Edwards introduced the Emergency Warning Act, he said the nation needs a warning system that reaches citizens wherever they are and provide practical information about what to do in emergencies.

"A national push for a new capability should open up new opportunities" for the technology industry, Lees said. "But a great deal depends on the approach taken. Too heavy a federal hand can stifle innovation. On the other hand, a lack of sufficient structure inhibits progress. The challenge is to provide the right balance between structure and flexibility."

Edward's bill, which includes $10 million in funding, would require the departments of Commerce and Homeland Security to ensure emergency warnings get to every American at risk.

The bill calls for development of specifications for a national backbone to be used to collect warnings and route them to dissemination systems. It also calls for using a full range of technologies to provide warnings, including telephones, wireless technology and the Internet. Also, it calls for the secretary of homeland security to develop and recommend standards and guidelines for universal warning terminology and protocols in coordination with federal, state and local governments and private entities.

"The crucial factor is the combination of all of the available technologies to find a solution," said Tim Wright, chief information officer and chief technology officer for Terra Lycos SA. The Barcelona, Spain, company has proposed an online emergency warning system to the Department of Homeland Security. (See related story, page 16.)

"Use every device at our disposal, every source of trusted information, and we will be able to respond more effectively," he said.

The bill was developed with help from the Partnership for Public Warning in McLean, Va.

"One of the big issues with warning systems is you need buy-in. This bill requires the secretaries of Commerce and Homeland Security to work with the stakeholders across government and industry," said Peter Ward, partnership chairman of the board. *

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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