Senators Express Concern About Responder Communications

Two U.S. senators recently expressed concern about the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) efforts to improve communications interoperability among first responders, stating that any weaknesses found in the system should be “addressed so all first responders can communicate with one another before the next major disaster.”

In an April 24 letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Ranking Member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed their disappointment that DHS has not moved more efficiently to improve its communication program.

The two senators warned that without a without a strategic approach and firm leadership, first responders will continue to be imperiled because of an inability to communicate effectively during an emergency or disaster.

Based on an April 2 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report titled “Much Work Remains to Improve Communications Interoperability,” the senators identified several “major weaknesses” in the department’s interoperability program, including:

  • Inadequate procedures to assess grant requests.
  • Poor communications planning among federal, state and local governments.
  • Ambiguous and incomplete radio standards.
  • A lack of training that would test the effectiveness of interoperability plans.

After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which established a new Office of Emergency Communications within DHS. In March, the Senate passed the Improving America’s Security Act of 2007, which creates a new DHS grant program dedicated to improving interoperable communications.

“We believe that a reform act, if properly implemented, will go a long way in addressing the poor planning and insufficient measures identified by the GAO,” the senators said in the letter.

Senators Request Explanation of DHS' Disagreement

Lieberman and Collins asked Chertoff to submit to the committee a full explanation of DHS' disagreement with GAO's recommendation for DHS to modify its grant guidance so that the department can purchase communications equipment until “standards for completed interfaces have been fully defined.”

According to the letter, GAO found some of the radio interface standards were incomplete and not well-defined and that the ambiguities have led to incompatibilities among products made by different vendors. In addition, GAO noted that no compliance testing has been conducted to observe if the products are interoperable.

“While we understand that the department does not want to undermine negotiations on standards, we also want to make sure that grants are available to pursue short- and long-term solutions through current and next generation interoperability solutions,” the senators wrote.

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