I have a very good friend who is a lifelong resident of New Orleans. He has a penchant for staying in the Big Easy during hurricanes, even when most others are fleeing. That changed with Hurricane Katrina. My friend sought refuge at his sister's home in Baton Rouge. He told me of the exodus from New Orleans up Interstate 10, which took about five hours to cover the 80 miles. It would have taken at least twice that had officials not reversed the flow of the southbound lanes.

The interstate highway system was designed with this in mind. President Dwight Eisenhower saw how effectively the German Autobahn was used during World War II for troop movements and wanted a similar infrastructure for the U.S., which also could be used for massive evacuations of cities in the event of a nuclear attack by the former Soviet Union.

As important is that the interstate highway system is a federal initiative. The Eisenhower administration and Congress presciently determined that if left solely to the states, an interstate highway system could have taken the form of a patchwork quilt with major chunks missing. Also, the federal government had exacting standards for the system. Given that the states had differing philosophies and resources based on regionality and population density, there was a real danger that the consistency sought by Washington could be compromised. So, while the states were entrusted with the task of building the roadways, the funding primarily came from the federal budget, which made it easier for Washington to keep the states in line.

Compare this approach to today's efforts to achieve interoperable first-responder communications. The Department of Homeland Security's Project SAFECOM wisely has insisted upon regionwide consensus on interoperability plans as a criterion for receiving federal grants. Unfortunately, consensus has been slow to develop, and America, in a post-9/11 world, doesn't have the time to wait. There are too many personalities, agendas, philosophies and resource disparities on the state and local level to think that nationwide interoperability ever will be achieved without the federal government taking the reins.

Consequently, the time has come for the creation of a comprehensive national interoperability communications plan. The Bush administration and Congress should apply the vision of President Eisenhower — which resulted in one of the great engineering feats in U.S. history and an infrastructure that made America more productive and secure — to create a communications system that will make the country's first responders more effective and keep them — and those they serve — safer.