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Committee says emergency communication needs broadband network

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WASHINGTON – Teenagers with smart phones might know more about a burning building than the firefighters sent to stop the fire.

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“Right now, my son and daughter have more capability than my firefighters do while responding to emergencies every day,” said Michael Varney, statewide interoperability coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

Varney was one of four people to testify Wednesday at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing “10 Years After 9/11: Improving Emergency Communications.”  The committee discussed how emergency responders need more efficient equipment and need to be able to work with other agencies across the country.

“As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, how first responders communicate with one another and how Americans receive emergency information remain challenges,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee’s senior Republican, said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., the committee chair, said 9/11 is an example of why communication among first responders needs to improve because in New York and Washington, different agencies had trouble communicating with each other.

“Many firefighters inside the TwinTowers didn’t hear the call to evacuate,” Lieberman said.

He said a New York City fire chief told the 9/11 Commission that people watching on TV that day had a better idea of what was going on than did the firefighters inside the buildings.

One way to fix this problem, Lieberman said, would be to dedicate part of the broadband spectrum to first responders. This network, called the D Block, would allow departments to send information nationwide.

Lieberman said this could allow firefighters to get digital floor plans of burning buildings, paramedics to send patient information to the emergency room to prepare doctors and nurses and police officers to take electronic fingerprints at crime scenes.

“The bottom line is our first responders need a nationwide network giving them the most modern broadband capabilities,” Lieberman said.

The Office of Emergency Communications at the Department of Homeland Security established the National Emergency Communication Plan in 2008 to create specific goals to help first responders.

In 2010, 60 urban areas that were part of a test were able to communicate with each other. That was the plan’s first goal.

The OEC is now testing the second goal, which assesses the emergency communication capabilities of more than 3,000 additional counties.

Greg Schaffer, deputy under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS, told the committee that in the three years the NECP has existed, it has defined priorities and improved communication at all levels.

“Progress is evident in all of the NECP priority areas, such as governance, training, andcoordination,” Schaffer said in a written statement. “Nevertheless, considerable work still remains to achieve the long-term vision ofthe NECP, in which emergency responders can communicate as needed, on demand, asauthorized, at all levels of government and across all disciplines.”

DHS has provided more than $4 billion in grant funds to state and local communication systems.

 Lieberman said Louisiana has used this funding, along with state money and stimulus dollars, to create a statewide radio communications system.

Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia Police commissioner, said there needs to be a plan to keep first responders using up-to-date technology because it’s always changing. Ramsey was the D.C. police chief from 1998 to 2006.

“Who knows where we’ll be 10 years from now?” Ramsey said. “We have to have the capability to expand.”

Collins said the communication problem in emergency situations also includes getting information to the public.

“Much like the communication among first responders, the communication between officials and the public is vitally important and can save lives,” Collins said. “Early warning can truly make a difference.”

She said she recently saw an emergency alert on her TV and realized many people probably weren’t watching TV, but they probably were using cell phones or computers.

“We need to recognize that people get their information in different ways nowadays,” Collins said.

Robert McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said first responders need to use the forms of communication that the public is using or alerts won’t be successful.

“During an emergency situation, if we do not have solid communications, then we will have no coordination,” McAleer said. “We will only have chaos.”

Reach reporter Lindsey Erdody at shws1@shns.com or 202-326-9866

SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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