FCC commissioners last month decided to solicit public comment on a series of recommendations, including facilitating first-responder interoperability, made by an independent panel in the wake of multiple communications failures caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“We must ensure that we are better prepared as a nation for the next disaster, whether it be another hurricane, an earthquake or a terrorist attack,” Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement.

The recommendations, made by the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks in a report issued in late June, are divided into four sections: pre-positioning of communications assets for disasters; improving recovery coordination efforts; improving first responder communications; and improving emergency communications with the public.

Among the notable recommendations is a call for every industry to establish a readiness checklist that addresses the need for power reserves, an inventory of replacement equipment and disaster training. It also calls for disaster-site access credentialing of workers for all communications infrastructure providers — not just those in the telecom arena — to ensure the opportunity for communications restoration as quickly as possible.

The panel also recommended enhancing early-warning systems by making them multilingual and suggested the FCC make a commitment to “revitalize and publicize the underutilized Emergency Alert System” to communicate with the general public during times of disaster.

Public-safety recommendations include pre-positioning of personnel and temporary equipment near disaster areas, increasing the diversity of circuits used in the 911 networks to enhance resiliency and improve backup-power capabilities.

On the interoperability front, the panel's recommendations focused on the 700 MHz band, noting the need for the FCC to auction the 700 MHz airwaves to generate $1 billion in revenue that is earmarked for interoperable communications. Radios purchased with these grant monies should be required to be capable of “operating on 700 MHz and 800 MHz channels established for mutual aid and interoperability voice communications,” the panel stated in the report.

Ron Haraseth, director of automated frequency coordination for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, said tying interoperability funding to operations on such frequencies may not have the desired effect.

“I would have a problem with that because there are too many local agencies for which 700 and 800 MHz radios don't fit into their world,” Haraseth said. “Three-fourths of the agencies in the United States operate on conventional 150 MHz and 450 MHz channels. So 700 MHz or 800 MHz radios would not serve their purpose in any way, shape or form.”