Bill aims to improve communication between first responders

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are co-sponsoring legislation to authorize $3.9 billion to create a national architecture enabling first-responder agencies to communicate wirelessly.

The Improve Interoperable Communications for First Responders Act of 2005 (ICOM Act) includes $3.3 billion over five years for short- and long-term interoperability initiatives and grant programs, as well as $611 million for the Homeland Security Department's Office of Interoperability and Compatibility for outreach, research, pilot programs and technical assistance.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the chairwoman and ranking Democrat, respectively, on the committee, as well as Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

"From computer systems to emergency radios, the technology that should allow the different levels of government to communicate with each other too often is silenced by incompatibility," Collins said in a news release. "Clearly, the barrier to a truly unified effort against terrorism is a matter of both culture and equipment. This legislation will help break down that barrier."

Interoperable communications for first responders has been a key issue for the Homeland Security Department since it was founded. The inability of firefighters to communicate easily by radio with police officers on scene at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, is considered a factor in many of their deaths.

Many radio systems used by police, fire and other emergency departments nationwide are incompatible with each other and with units used by neighboring agencies, hampering a regional, coordinated response.

State and local agencies can apply a portion of the $3 billion made available in federal homeland security grants each year toward new radio and wireless equipment and connectors, towers and devices to link equipment. However, there is no dedicated fund for such programs, and progress has been difficult to measure.

The ICOM Act would offer dedicated funding and focus much greater attention on the concerns, the co-sponsors said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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