Two national public-safety leaders today expressed dismay that a government official this week stated that public-safety answering point (PSAPs) would be eligible for a portion of $1 billion in interoperability grant funds.

At the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) annual conference in Charlotte this week, Thomas Hardy—an official with the emergency planning and safety division of the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA)—said improving 911 systems would be an appropriate use of the grant program, because doing so would enhance public-safety interoperable communications.

But Harlin McEwen, speaking on behalf of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Sheriffs Association, said Hardy’s statements do not reflect his understanding of the statute enacted by Congress.

“I’m amazed that he would say this when this clearly has not been the purpose of the money,” McEwen said. “And I’m disappointed that NENA obviously is continuing to advocate that some of the money be used for [PSAPs] when we have expressed our concern about that and have supported additional separate funds for 911.”

During the NENA conference, multiple 911-sector representatives expressed frustration that Congress has not yet appropriated any of the $1.25 billion authorized for PSAP upgrades three years ago. Last year, legislation that included a NENA-supported amendment to designate PSAP enhancements as an approved use of the $1 billion in interoperability money failed amid opposition from public-safety organizations.

McEwen said this is not the way to address the matter, noting that the act establishing the $1 billion interoperability grant program also calls for $43.5 million for enhanced 911 funding—an indication that Congress perceived 911 and interoperability as separate items when the law was passed.

“I’m a strong advocate for getting additional money for 911 purposes—it is an important public-safety goal that has been underfunded and needs additional funding,” he said. “But we do not believe it should be taken from the interoperability money, because that’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Asked whether there had been a reciprocal offer to share federal grant monies earmarked for 911 for radio interoperability, McEwen said, “No, and we wouldn’t expect them to.”

“We wouldn’t advocate such a thing, because we believe 911 is important,” he said. “Any money appropriated for the purpose of enhancing 911 services we would not think would be used for radio purposes—and we would not advocate such a thing, anymore than we would expect them to [use interoperability funds for PSAPs].”

Radio interoperability has become a priority on Capitol Hill, but addressing the problem will be expensive. If 10% of the $1 billion in grant money is used to administer the program, the 50 states would receive an average of $18 million each—$12 million less than it cost to build a single interoperable 800 MHz Project 25 system in the Richmond, Va., region.

“$18 million is not that much money,” McEwen said. “So, if they start chipping away at this and use the money for other things, [the grant program] is going to be much less significant than what the Congress intended it to be.”

Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) President Wanda McCarley said she had not previously heard Hardy’s interpretation of the guidelines to be used for the distribution of interoperability grant funds, except in the NENA proposal.

“We work closely with NENA, and we agree on stuff and we disagree on stuff; this is one we disagree on,” said McCarley, who is the 911 director in Tarrant County, Texas. “I believe that interoperability applies to public safety, not the public’s access to public safety—that’s a whole different interoperability question tied to the 911 network.”