At last month's inaugural IWCE-MRT Wireless Summit in Charlotte, N.C., panelist Ben Holycross opined that public-safety communications in the U.S. today aren't much different than they were just prior to Hurricane Katrina slamming into the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Sure, several reports have been published since then that identified myriad weaknesses concerning post-Katrina communications, but not many solutions -- if any -- have emerged, Holycross said.

He certainly knows what he's talking about. As the radio systems manager for Polk County, Fla., Holycross led a team to ravaged Hancock County, Miss., to help restore vital communications. It was a situation like nothing he had ever encountered -- which is saying something, because Polk County endured three major hurricanes over a six-week period in 2004. Holycross had the pictures to prove it, sharing many of them with his audience. They were compelling, to say the least.

Because of the lack of progress that has been made since Katrina, Holycross suggested that President Bush appoint a public-safety communications czar and give that person the necessary authority to fix what ails first-responder communications.

There is precedent for such a maneuver. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush moved quickly to create the Office of Homeland Security, via executive order, in October 2001. Congress followed that action by enacting the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security, in November of that year.

There are many who will argue that the last thing we need is more bureaucracy. Others will claim that DHS hasn't had much impact on homeland security--despite the fact that current Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Secretary Tom Ridge both were given plenty of authority and resources--and will question the wisdom of creating another Cabinet-level post to oversee first responder communications.

Though I'm not a big fan of bureaucracy myself, I do believe there are times it is a necessary evil -- and this is one of those times. I also believe that DHS has had positive impact -- does anyone really doubt that our airports are more secure today than they were before 9/11? -- despite being hampered by having too many areas of responsibility, not to mention the fact that securing America is turning out to be a much more complex endeavor than anyone imagined.

Among other things, the DHS is responsible for securing our borders and transportation systems; protecting critical infrastructure; coordinating emergency preparedness and response; and protecting America against chemical, biological and radiation attacks. Frankly, it's too much. The DHS is falling victim to what has plagued the FCC for years: having too much on its plate. I have been covering the FCC in one form or other for the last six years and often have thought that separating the commission into broadcast and telecommunications units would make sense.

A similar case could be made regarding the DHS. One of the department's stated goals is to achieve nationwide interoperable communications for first responders. And, isolated success stories aside, it has failed to achieve this goal. The DHS had hoped to spur regionwide consensus on interoperability by tying it to the availability of federal grants. What it didn't count on is that first-responder communications are governed at the local level and tend to operate within silos. So far, the DHS hasn't figured out how to get around that.

Perhaps the answer lies in Holycross' suggestion: Give someone at the federal level a billy club and the authority to use it, with the result being that the federal government dictates an interoperability plan that public-safety agencies across the land would have no choice but to implement.

Now, before you start banging on your keyboard, know that I understand that there is good reason for public-safety communications to be governed and administered at the local level. After all, the circumstances and environment in which police and fire departments operate in Manhattan, N.Y., are far different than in Manhattan, Kan.

But none of that should matter when it comes to interoperability. When a terrorist attack or major natural disaster occurs, incident commanders need to be able to communicate across agencies as soon as they arrive at the scene. For the most part, that capability is sorely lacking across the country -- and the current approaches to fixing it have proved ineffective. Consequently, new approaches must be considered. Washington should start by giving Holycross' suggestion some thought.

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