Since the 9/11 attacks, federal lawmakers have bemoaned the lack of interoperable communications between public-safety agencies that may need to coordinate efforts when large-scale incidents occur.

Expecting a windfall from the auction of 700 MHz spectrum to commercial wireless carriers, Congress earmarked an unprecedented $1 billion in anticipated auction proceeds to fund Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grants. On Sept. 30, 2007, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) co-allocated more than $968 million to 56 states and territories. Although disbursed at the state/territorial level, local government agencies were given an opportunity to tap into these funds by applying to their respective state/territorial bodies with their interoperable communications projects.

This month, NTIA plans to release state-by-state investment summaries at www.ntia.doc.gov/psic. But the effectiveness of the PSIC grants will not be able to be assessed for quite awhile, said Todd Sedmark, communications director for NTIA.

“The purpose is to help state and local public-safety agencies fill interoperability gaps and enhance their ability to communicate when responding to hazards,” Sedmark said. “This program has just started, so money spent and results achieved are still to be determined.”

Charlottesville, Va., Fire Chief Charles Werner, a member of the SAFECOM executive committee and the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, echoed this sentiment, noting that the process of disbursing the grant money has been subject to delays.

“But even without the delays, there is no easy way to tell how much progress has been made, as the projects just received funding approval and have yet to be implemented,” Werner said.

To receive the funds, states and territories had to submit applications to the NTIA by August 2007. These applications included criteria outlining how each state would evaluate grant requests from public-safety agencies in their jurisdiction.

By last December, the states or territories had to identify for NTIA the projects they wanted to fund using PSIC money, plus submit an investment justification for those projects and their own statewide communications interoperability plans (SCIPs). All PSIC-funded projects must be completed by Sept. 30, 2010.

Yucel Ors, director of legislative affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, said APCO officials are awaiting a full report on PSIC disbursements and plans to monitor use of the PSIC grants.

“All the agencies had to turn in investment justifications, and all the states have completed their SCIPs [to receive funding],” Ors said. “As you can imagine, APCO is very interested in finding out what gets accomplished with the $1 billion and what additional funding sources will be needed to truly accomplish the goals of all SCIPs.”

Under the 2007 PSIC rules, each state was entitled to a minimum of $3 million in grants, and each territory was assured at least $500,000. The awards vary widely, with larger, more populous states receiving the bulk of the funding.

This is why it comes as no surprise that California received the largest PSIC grant at $94 million, followed by Texas at $65 million and New York at $60 million. At the other end of the spectrum, American Samoa was awarded the smallest PSIC grant of $691,948. (See table on page 25.)

Finding out how the money is being spent is not easy, but authorities in Indiana and Wisconsin shared their plans.

Indiana's PSIC grant amount was for more than $18 million, $13 million of which is being spent on radios for first responders, said Sally Fay, communications director for Indiana's SCIP, the Integrated Public Safety Commission.

“This amount will allow local first responders to purchase more than 5200 radios, a nearly 20% increase in the number of radios on the statewide system,” Fay said. “We negotiated lower pricing, the funds have been allocated, and the locals are in the process of acquiring radios.”

Indiana also has allocated almost $3 million to build seven additional communications sites across the state, as well as $2 million of its PSIC grant to create Indata, “a collaborative digital technology evaluation and best-practices effort to help map Indiana's digital future,” Fay said.

“With its first mission — a statewide system for interoperable voice communications — nearly accomplished, Indiana is ideally poised to move into the next generation of public-safety communications: integrated public-safety data sharing,” she said.

In Wisconsin, a new governance board consisting of local law enforcement, emergency management and response representatives, as well as key state stakeholders, has been formed to develop and evaluate plans for PSIC funds, said Ryan Sugden, public affairs officer with Wisconsin's Office of Justice Assistance.

“This governance board has contracted with a private engineering firm to conduct a feasibility study of a proposed statewide trunking backbone that would be financed using PSIC funds,” Sugden said. “This study will cover the technical and financial aspects and implications of the proposed statewide system. A preliminary report is expected this winter, with the final evaluation coming this spring.”

The timing of the PSIC grants couldn't be better, as DHS has released its National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP), which defines three goals that establish a minimum level of interoperable communications and milestones for federal, state, local and tribal agencies over the next three years.

Under the NECP, 90% of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) must be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions/agencies by 2010. In 2011, 75% of non-UASI jurisdictions will have to achieve the same level of performance.

“Two years later, 75% of all jurisdictions will have to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours of a significant event, as outlined in national planning scenarios,” said Amy Kudwa, deputy press secretary for DHS.

The PSIC grant program is not the only source of federal funding for interoperability upgrades; others include the DHS Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program, the DHS Homeland Security Grant Program, the DHS Port Security Grant Program and the DHS Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program.

“Overall, more than $2.6 billion in DHS grant funding has been made available to support a host of preparedness needs, among which grantees can prioritize communications expenditures,” Kudwa said.

But most industry observers believe much more money will be needed, as some DHS officials have estimated that nationwide interoperability would cost between $60 billion and $100 billion.

“The PSIC grants will make a difference toward achieving interoperability, and the implementation of the NECP will also help by providing a defined level of success for such projects,” Werner said. “But more grants will be necessary to finish the job. What we need to do now is to find the gaps in the current process, to figure out how much more money will be required and what it will be needed for.”

PSIC PROGRAM GRANT AWARDS
State/Territory PSIC Award
Alabama $13,585,399
Alaska $7,250,345
American Samoa $691,948
Arizona $17,713,050
Arkansas $11,169,402
California $94,034,510
Colorado $14,336,638
Connecticut $12,999,879
Delaware $8,196,842
District of Columbia $11,857,972
Florida $42,888,266
Georgia $25,311,354
Guam $2,600,678
Hawaii $8,069,879
Idaho $7,289,795
Illinois $36,414,263
Indiana $18,291,735
Iowa $10,935,974
Kansas $10,667,169
Kentucky $15,405,625
Louisiana $19,672,287
Maine $7,567,579
Maryland $22,934,593
Massachusetts $21,191,988
Michigan $25,039,781
Minnessota $14,262,071
Mississippi $10,989,345
Missouri $17,465,576
Montana $6,549,685
Nebraska $8,582,108
Nevada $12,042,417
New Hampshire $5,966,760
New Jersey $30,806,646
New Mexico $8,288,725
New York $60,734,783
North Carolina $22,130,199
North Dakota $7,052,490
Northern Mariana Islands $719,236
Ohio $29,377,337
Oklahoma $11,684,183
Oregon $12,182,532
Pennsylvania $34,190,555
Puerto Rico $9,590,025
Rhode Island $7,365,694
South Carolina $13,499,308
South Dakota $6,549,691
Tennessee $17,540,752
Texas $65,069,247
U.S. Virgin Islands $856,907
Utah $10,353,261
Vermont $4,476,761
Virginia $25,012,521
Washington $19,180,347
West Virginia $8,429,484
Wisconsin $15,367,216
Wyoming $5,952,187
TOTAL $968,385,000
Source: NTIA