With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks just days away, public-safety officials and other supporters appear to accept that legislation that would finally create a national broadband public-safety network is unlikely to come before this symbolic date. But they say they are keeping pressure on lawmakers to get the job done this year.
“We’re not letting up. We’re not letting anybody off the hook,” said Sean Kirkendall, a spokesman for the Public Safety Alliance. “We’re going to keep on pushing it.” The alliance is a coalition of fire and police chiefs and other public-safety officials.
The 9/11 attacks put a fatal spotlight on the difficulty police, firefighters, and other emergency first responders have in communicating with each other. On that day, scores of firefighters were killed because they did not get the call to evacuate the World Trade Center’s twin towers before they collapsed.
Since those attacks, public-safety officials have been calling for a national broadband public-safety network that would help improve communications and enable emergency first responders to use video, text, and other technologies to enhance the way they do their jobs.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation in June, authored by the panel’s leaders, that would allocate a chunk of spectrum known as the D-block to public safety for their broadband network and authorize funding to build it. The D-block is slated under current law to be auctioned to commercial bidders.
Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has made passing this legislation before Sunday’s 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks his top priority. “Implementing a national, interoperable radio system for our first responders is within our grasp. It will save lives all across the country, and we owe it to first responders to get it done,” he said last week. “There is bipartisan legislation awaiting Senate action that would accomplish this goal.”
Even though the bill is not expected to move by Sunday’s anniversary, congressional supporters and public-safety officials are using the anniversary to try to put more pressure on lawmakers to enact the bill this year.
Emergency first responders met with key congressional leaders including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in their home states during the August break.
This week, public-safety officials were expected to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The White House has embraced their cause, and to underscore this support, Vice President Joe Biden is hosting a reception at his official residence late on Thursday afternoon to honor emergency first responders. And on Friday, the Public Safety Alliance will host a news conference in Washington to rally support for Rockefeller’s bill and remember the first responders who died during the 2001 attacks.
Meanwhile, the House Homeland Security Committee is holding a hearing on Thursday to examine the progress policymakers have made in implementing the recommendations from the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks. Among the unfinished items that the panel will discuss is the failure to build a national interoperable broadband network for public safety.
“Were trying ... to elevate the interest on the part of Congress to take seriously the need to get this done,” said Harlin R. McEwen, a former FBI official and retired Ithaca, N.Y., police chief who now chairs the Public Safety Spectrum Trust.
Public-safety officials have been told that Rockefeller’s spectrum bill could go to the Senate floor by the end of the month. They say they are glad to at least have a date for possible floor action.
Yet even if the Senate passes the Rockefeller bill, it could face roadblocks in the House. While key Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have made spectrum legislation one of their top priorities for the fall and support building a national broadband network for public safety, they have opposed reallocating the D-block to do it. A draft spectrum privacy bill crafted by Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., would not give the D-block spectrum to public safety but would auction it off instead.
Key Energy and Commerce Democrats have drafted their own spectrum legislation that would give the D-block to public safety. In a statement on Wednesday, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the ranking member on the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said she is still hopeful Republicans and Democrats on the committee can agree.
“I’ve been working with my colleagues to develop bipartisan legislation that will provide first responders with the tools they need to keep our nation safe. With the support of the president, we should pass legislation that will create this communications network.... We can’t afford to wait any longer,” she said.