One of the signature recommendations of the bipartisan panel that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks was to improve communications between civilian authorities, local first responders and the National Guard, so that they can respond more effectively in the event of an attack or a natural disaster.
Barack Obama took up the call during the 2008 presidential campaign, promising to "provide greater technical assistance to local and state first responders and dramatically increase funding for reliable, interoperable communications systems. He also supports a more rapid turnover of broadcast spectrum to first responders."
The Department of Homeland Security touts the work it has done in implementing the National Emergency Communications Plan.
Approximately 40 grant programs administered by nine federal agencies have provided homeland security assistance. Of this, the Homeland Security Grant Program has provided $6.5 billion since 2008 toward interoperability for states" emergency medical response systems and regional communication systems, as well as planning at the community level to improve emergency preparedness, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigatory arm of Congress.
The department has also sponsored forums for public safety officials, helped define technical standards and provided educational materials.
Perhaps more important, Congress passed and Obama signed legislation in 2012 creating the First Responder Network Authority, an independent authority within the Department of Commerce that is tasked with taking "all actions necessary” to build, deploy and operate a new, nationwide, broadband network for public safety communications, in consultation with federal, state, tribal and local public policy entities.
The act designated more than $7 billion for the network and other public safety needs, of which $5 billion would be paid by the proceeds of spectrum-license auctions. But such auctions depend on the cooperation of the broadcasters and government agencies who currently use those portions of the spectrum.
In addition, most observers say that $7 billion is not enough to cover the full broadband network's price tag. "The cost of construction of a nationwide network for public safety is estimated by experts to be in the tens of billions of dollars over the long term, with similarly large sums needed for maintenance and operation,” the Congressional Research Service concluded in November 2012.
Already, in 2010, the Commerce Department suspended work after $40 million had been spent on behalf of seven public-safety organizations out of concerns that the systems they were setting up might not link up correctly with the new broadband network.
A February 2012 GAO assessment found only mixed progress in ensuring that first responders in different jurisdictions can communicate effectively.
While acknowledging that the Department of Homeland Security has cited improvement, GAO added that full interoperability "remains a distant goal,” perhaps taking more than a decade. GAO said the effort to build a broadband network for first responders will enable more efficient sharing of data, images and video, but added that this would not support voice communications, making it a supplementary system rather than one that could be the primary communications system.
GAO also noted a continuing problem that predates Obama -- how the hardware tends to be purchased. Jurisdictions do not typically band together when buying elements of their communications systems, which hampers the ability of localities to use their market power to lower acquisition costs. GAO recommends that the Department of Homeland Security lead a collective purchasing effort, but that has not yet materialized.
A real-life test of first responder communications emerged in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the mid-Atlantic states. "New York police commanders could talk by radio with fire department supervisors across the city, to officials battling power failures in nearby counties and with authorities shutting down airports in New York and New Jersey,” the New York Times reported, characterizing it as "great strides” compared to previous emergency situations.
However, the Times also found that "emergency officials who showed up from other cities to help clean up after the hurricane could not talk to New York officials with the radios they had brought from home.”
And whereas the federally funded New York system that worked successfully uses radio waves, officials expressed concerns that Hurricane Sandy exposed a risk for the new broadband system being built -- that it relies too heavily on commercial cellphone networks that aren't sufficiently durable to survive a natural disaster.
"These networks failed when we would have needed them most,” Charles F. Dowd, a deputy chief who oversees the New York Police Department's communications division, told the Times. "The idea of using commercial networks is a real concern for public safety.”
The federal government has made strides in pursuing interoperability, including a promise of $7 billion in funding. But the effort has run into numerous structural and technical challenges, and the money being allocated is thought to be too limited to build the system that's needed. On balance, we rate this a Compromise.