Following Hurricane Katrina, there were many news reports that indicated New Orleans' public-safety communications had failed. Given the scope of the catastrophe, such an outcome should have been expected. Would any radio system have survived the massive flooding that occurred? With about 80 percent of the city under water, it is probable that all of the infrastructure that supported first responder communications -- transmitters, power supplies and generators -- were submerged too.

Quickly, Congress jumped to introduce legislation to study the feasibility of a backup system that would become active when the main public-safety communications system fails or is disabled. While laudable, the concept seems somewhat flawed when one considers that many primary radio systems across the country are inadequate.

Consequently, it is critical that Congress re-examine the thought of putting money into any secondary systems when the focus would be better placed on bringing primary radio systems to an acceptable performance level which addresses basic operability, reliability, redundancy and interoperability.

Before we set our sights on any particular solution, we must examine the situation holistically and determine what would occur if and when everyone migrates to a specific solution. For example, as first responders moved quickly to satellite communications in Katrina's aftermath, some capacity issues emerged. Such impacts must be fully examined to insure that any new solution can meet the challenges that will be set forth.

The following are several suggestions for improving today's primary systems (most of these recommendations and more were submitted in the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee report released on September 11, 1996 and reinforced in last year's 9/11 Commission Report):

1. Develop minimum baseline performance standards for primary public-safety communications, e.g., ensure operability and in-building coverage.

2. Provide federal funding to assist localities to meet these new minimum baseline standards.

3. Require minimum interoperability between agencies as part of the new standards. These standards must include mobile/tactical solutions that can be implemented should the infrastructure suffer from catastrophic damage.

4. Provide financial grants or tax incentives to encourage entrepreneurial spirit to develop new technologies for public-safety communications and expand on the Statement of Requirements for future first responder communications as outlined by the Department of Homeland Security's Project SAFECOM.

5. Establish a firm date for the transfer of 700 MHz radio spectrum promised to public safety (see related story).

The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana observed in "The Life of Reason," published in 1905, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is a lesson that apparently has been lost on Congress. Over and over again, the effectiveness of public-safety communications systems is assessed in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. At that point it's just too late. It's time for federal lawmakers to put in motion a feasible plan to ensure that primary public-safety communications are survivable, reliable and interoperable before the next crisis arrives. It's the very least that first responders, and the taxpayers they serve, deserve.

Charles Werner is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and presently serves as deputy chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department. He serves on several state and federal interoperability groups, as well as on the IAFC's Communications Committee and the Project SAFECOM Executive Committee. He can be e-mailed at wernerc@charolttesville.org.