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9/22/2005
04:46 PM
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Senate Introduces Funding For Emergency Communications

The bill would give states and communities up to $400 million in 2006, increasing gradually to $1 billion by 2010, to improve emergency communications capabilities.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's communications failures and with the specter of the interoperability issues of September 11 still looming, bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the Senate to help improve the nation's critical communications.

"Many communities throughout the nation still do not have the communications infrastructure in place for first responders to communicate with one another during an emergency," says Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Four years after September 11, Hurricane Katrina silenced communications systems in the Gulf states. Almost 2.5 million people were without land lines at the height of the storm. In the hardest-hit parts of Biloxi and New Orleans, Verizon lost 85 % of its network as even backup power sources failed. Some emergency officials were forced to resort to couriers to communicate with first responders.

If the bill introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and co-sponsored by four others on both sides of the aisle passes, states and communities could get up to $400 million in 2006, increasing gradually to $1 billion by 2010, to improve emergency communications capabilities. The money would go toward development and implementation of interoperable communications systems that would continue to work during catastrophes.

"This legislation would be extraordinarily helpful in maintaining our system and would be helpful for other agencies to develop these systems themselves," says Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish sheriff's office spokesman James Hartman. The St. Tammany sheriff's office was the only local agency in the parish of 210,000 residents whose emergency communications systems held up completely, having spent $8 million three years ago on a sturdy, interoperable, digital 800-mHz communications system.

Beyond financial grants, the Senate bill also creates an office within the Department of Homeland Security to study and promote the establishment of emergency communications systems that would work even when usual communications infrastructure has been destroyed. "This bill takes an important step towards improving emergency communications nationwide so no community experiences the communications failure we saw in parts of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina," says Lieberman.

The new bill is actually only one of a few efforts in Congress in recent months to try to assure operable and interoperable emergency communications during catastrophes. The others have both failed.

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