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Susan Collins

Communicating During a Crisis
By Senator Susan Collins
Sep 17, 2007 - 9:01:46 PM

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Sen. Susan Collins represents the State of Maine in the U.S. Senate.
Six years after the September 11th attacks, too many police officers, firefighters, emergency medical workers and other first responders still lack the basic ability to communicate effectively with one another during emergencies.

The 9/11 Commission Report on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Senate Homeland Security Committee investigation that I chaired into the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, identified the deadly consequences when police, fire, and medical first responders cannot communicate during a crisis. In an era when we can send text messages and videos around at the world instantaneously, it is unacceptable that our emergency responders are sometimes unable to talk with each other on their portable radios.

Being able to share information across different systems in real time is called "interoperability." Although much work remains to be done, we have made progress. Last year, I authored legislation to create a new Office of Emergency Communications in the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Its mission is to give technical assistance and guidance to states and local governments and to help first responders acquire interoperable emergency-communications systems.

This year, as Congress worked to implement remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, Senator Joseph Lieberman and I coauthored another bill to establish a DHS interoperable-communications grant program. The federal government has made billions of dollars available for general homeland-security purposes, but this program is the first to dedicate funds exclusively to interoperable communications.

The Senate approved our amendment to provide $100 million to fund this new program in fiscal year 2008. This amendment was supported by associations representing firefighters, law enforcement, and public-safety communications officials. These funds will help us ensure that Maine and every other state can achieve at least a baseline level of reliable emergency communications for everyday operations and for use during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Maine has already taken a key step to become eligible for this program by creating the Maine Interoperable Communications Committee. This committee will provide the statewide planning for interoperable communications that federal law requires as a condition of grant funding. This will help ensure that all our efforts are focused on the same goal, coordinated with one another, and making effective use of taxpayers' dollars.

The work involved in enhancing interoperable emergency communications can entail intricate planning and highly technical considerations and can range from near-term small improvement fixes to big, multi-year projects. The challenges include establishing connections among hardware like handheld radios, vehicle radios, 911 call centers, and other facilities; coordinating frequency assignments; providing for data, image, and video transmissions as well as voice signals; ensuring that procedures and even operating vocabularies are understood among different agencies; and facilitating connections with Internet and private-network communications.

Grants for interoperable emergency-communications planning, training, and equipment will help identify and avoid many serious problems that might otherwise not be apparent until a disaster is already unfolding. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, many Gulf Coast residents couldn't use their cell phones because the storm had destroyed more than one thousand cell towers. Many land-line calls couldn't be completed because phone-company switching centers and 911 call centers were underwater, or because back-up power generators had run out of fuel. Lack of data-transmission capability prevented proper identification and tracking of patients and medical supplies. Some of the local radio equipment was so obsolete that it was not only incompatible with other people's systems, but repair parts could be obtained only from sellers on eBay. Better equipment and improved planning, including worst-case scenarios and contingency plans, can avoid or compensate for many of these problems.

Maine is not immune to such problems. Blizzards, ice storms, river flooding, and other natural disasters can inflict death and destruction here while testing the mettle of our police, firefighters, and emergency medical responders. Meanwhile, our rugged terrain, dispersed population, and large number of small towns multiply the number of emergency-communication connections that a major disaster will require.

For all these reasons, it is vital for Maine to have the multi-year planning and funding that will bring our state, tribal, county, and local communications up to a standard that will speed help and save lives when disaster strikes. And it's in the national interest that every state reach that standard, because major disasters respect no borders, and will draw responders from near and far. I will continue to work to keep the goal of interoperable communications a top priority for Congress.

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