FCC’s Pending Decision Fails Emergency 1st Responders And Public, Warns 9/11 Firefighters, Senior And Minority Groups

Washington, D.C. – Urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to “put the needs of America’s public safety personnel first and address the critical issue of interoperability” among differing police and fire communications systems, a group of 9/11 firefighters, along with senior and minority groups warned today that “Nextel’s ill-advised (spectrum swap) plan places first responders at risk and could threaten the security of all Americans if the communications services used by public safety are not operating at the highest standards.”

The firefighters and other groups are releasing a white paper entitled Safety Over Spectrum: A Plan for First Responder Communications, that outlines an alternate approach for the FCC that puts the primary public policy emphasis not on a commercial agenda, but, instead, on smoothing the way for police and firefighters struggling to address post-September 11th demands to improve and coordinate emergency communications.

In addition to individual firefighters, the First Response Coalition consists of such groups as the Gray Panthers and Black Chamber of Commerce – organizations consisting of members who are particularly concerned about first responders having the best possible communications capabilities.

The Coalition’s white paper states: “Today, and (as was) unfortunately evident on September 11th, the communications systems of public safety departments are not interoperable. It is difficult, if not impossible, for different departments from different (or sometimes the same) jurisdictions to communicate because their systems and equipment cannot interact. Resolution of this crisis must be swift, or the danger to our first responders and all Americans will continue to skyrocket … As urgent and complicated as this problem is, the situation is exacerbated by the actions of Nextel Communications. Guised as an effort to help public safety departments eliminate interference problems in their communications systems, Nextel is waging a multi-million dollar campaign which is diverting attention and possible resources away from the real issue of communications interoperability.”

Gene Stilp, firefighter, EMT and vice president of the Dauphin-Middle Paxton Fire Company #1, Dauphin, Pa., noted: ” I can tell you from the perspective of rural volunteer fire departments we must solve the interoperability problems to protect public safety. Since 9/11, I have been involved emergency response and have witnessed first hand the problems faced by public safety.”

Will Thomas, director, Corporate Accountability Project, Gray Panthers, added: “Older Americans have a lot at stake in making sure that emergency communications get steadily better rather than being disrupted and thrown into uncertainty for a time so that one company can be bailed out by the federal government in a dubious spectrum grab. I would not want to have to explain to an older person or the family of that person why emergency help didn’t get someplace on time to save the life of a beloved grandmother or grandfather just because Washington was more interested in cutting some corners for corporations.”

There are 20,000 cities and counties in the United States, and thousands of other local jurisdictions. In 2003, there were over 2.5 million public safety first responders in the United States, with no uniform standards in existence to govern their communications.

Key White Paper Points
The No. 1 issue when it comes to first-responder communications is licking the interoperability problem, according to the white paper. The document notes: “The First Response Coalition believes interoperability issues, which have become even more important after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, must be addressed in any public safety communications plan. It is hard to see how Nextel’s proposal will dramatically help public safety agencies achieve interoperability.

Nextel’s plan does not provide for large-scale replacement of public safety radios. This step is critical to create interoperable communications systems, as the current units operate in widely divergent manners. Without replacing radios, Nextel’s plan is merely a shifting of spectrum assignments, without allocating additional spectrum or resources for interoperability needs. If local governments and public safety departments are going to spend millions of dollars upgrading their communications systems to deal with Nextel’s interference, it would be prudent to include interoperability considerations, rather than taking separate courses of actions on the two problems.”

Other key points made in the white paper include:

  • Spectrum auction funds could be earmarked for improved interoperability. President George W. Bush promised $3.5 billion to first responders in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, including money for interoperable communications. However, approval of the promised federal funds has lagged. State and local governments, already pressed by budget shortfalls, have had to delay communications systems upgrades or fund them from limited taxpayer funds. Funds from auctioning the frequencies at 1.9 GHz, which Nextel wants for free, could be used by the federal government to make good on its promise to help first responders across the nation to upgrade their communications systems.
  • More funds need to be made available for interoperability than the paltry $700 million proposed by Nextel. Given that a 1998 estimate placed the cost at $18.3 billion to replace public safety communications equipment and network infrastructure nationwide, it is clear that Nextel has not allocated sufficient funds for the transition. There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the exact cost of the transition; the divergent nature of the thousands of public safety departments involved make it difficult to craft any reliable estimate.
  • Nextel’s “solution” would lock in old technology that may not get the job done tomorrow. Another drawback to Nextel’s plan is that it upgrades or provides communications equipment that may be obsolete as newer, more interoperable systems and standards are developed. Advanced communications, including broadband networks and satellite global positioning systems (GPS), can greatly improve the ability of public safety departments to respond to emergencies. By focusing on a short-term solution, Nextel could force police, fire, and EMS departments to utilize current technology that may solve the interference problem today, but be useless tomorrow.

The First Response Plan outlined by the Coalition calls for:

  • Holding Nextel responsible for all instances of interference it causes and ensuring the company works with local public safety departments to resolve the problems.
  • Auctioning spectrum in the 1.9 GHz band and earmarking the proceeds for upgrading first responder communications systems.
  • Developing an accelerated regional deployment schedule to ensure that public safety communications systems are upgraded by 2006.
  • Providing low-interest loans and guarantees to assist underserved and economically disadvantaged communities in obtaining the newest communications technologies.
  • Establishing advisory panels to recommend solutions that adequate address the disparate needs of America’s diverse communities.

More information is available at http://thehastingsgroup.com/firstresponders.html.

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