From my early days as a career police officer and volunteer firefighter, I realized how important it was to have reliable public-safety radio communications.

Over the years I have witnessed the changes in public-safety communications as the FCC has allocated additional channels and bands to meet the increasing needs of public safety.

In the early 1990s, many of us working on behalf of the national public-safety community realized we were in desperate need of additional spectrum. We began to try to get the FCC to recognize the need but without success. Finally, on June 25, 1995, at the urging of the Congress, the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration established the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) to evaluate the wireless communications needs of federal, state and local public-safety agencies through the year 2010 and recommend possible solutions.

On Sept. 11, 1996 (exactly five years prior to the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil), the PSWAC Final Report concluded that “unless immediate measures are taken to alleviate spectrum shortfalls and promote interoperability, public-safety agencies will not be able to adequately discharge their obligation to protect life and property in a safe, efficient, and cost effective manner.”

The report also said, “First, the radio frequencies allocated for public-safety use have become highly congested in many, especially urban, areas. Second, the ability of officials from different public-safety agencies to communicate with each other is limited. Finally. public-safety agencies have not been able to implement advanced features to aid in their mission.”

As a result of the PSWAC Report, in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, Congress directed the FCC to allocate 24 MHz of the 700 MHz band for public safety to partially address the need for more radio spectrum.

Unfortunately, almost a decade later, the spectrum allocated to public safety is still encumbered by television broadcasters in most urban areas.

In December 2004, The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 was enacted, but it failed to set a firm date for TV broadcasters to vacate the public safety-allocated spectrum. In the act Congress stated “it must act to pass legislation in the first session of the 109th Congress that establishes a comprehensive approach to the timely return of analog broadcast spectrum as early as Dec. 31, 2006.”

Since then we have been working with Congress to get legislation establishing a firm date. The latest tentative agreement between the Senate and the House was for a firm date of Feb. 17, 2009, but as the Congress adjourned in late December (a year later), the matter had not been resolved. Finally, President Bush signed he bill on Feb. 8 (see story on page 8).

A coalition of public-safety and local government organizations worked diligently to clear this roadblock. The coalition includes the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, Congressional Fire Services Institute, International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, Major County Sheriffs' Association, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, and National Sheriffs' Association.

Now that a firm date has been established clearing the spectrum, public safety can plan for the use of this spectrum and develop funding sources to utilize these urgently needed airwaves.


Harlin McEwen has been in the field of law enforcement for more than 47 years.He has served for more than 27 years as chairman of the IACP Communications & Technology Committee and also serves as Communications Adviser to Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, National Sheriffs' Association, Major County Sheriffs' Association and as an adviser to the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and various other agencies.