FCC Chairman Kevin Martin yesterday proposed establishing a new bureau within the FCC focused on public safety and homeland security after commissioners listened to three hours of testimony about communications struggles related to Hurricane Katrina.

During the hurricane, more than 3 million people lost phone service, more than 1000 wireless towers were knocked down and more than 100 broadcast stations were knocked off the air, Martin said. This made communications with victims of the storm difficult, and even first responders had difficulty communicating.

“It is at times like these that we are reminded of the importance of being able tocommunicate,” Martin said. “While no communications network could be expected to remain fully operational in the face of a direct hit from a category four or five hurricane, that fact was little consolation to the people on the ground.”

In an effort to avoid similar communications problems in the future, Martin said he will create an independent expert panel of public-safety officials and communications representatives to review the impact of Hurricane Katrina. The panel will be asked to make recommendations to improve disaster preparedness, network reliability and communications between first responders.

Perhaps of greater long-term impact will be Martin’s proposal to establish a public-safety/homeland security bureau within the FCC to coordinate all public-safety and national security activities within the agency. Martin said the new bureau’s responsibilities would include the following issues:

* Public-safety communications, including 911 centers and first responders;
* Priority emergency communications;
* Alerting and warning U.S. citizens;
* Continuity of government operations;
* Disaster-management coordination;
* Disaster-management outreach;
* Communications infrastructure protection;
* Network reliability and interoperability; and
* Network security.

Commissioner Michael Copps applauded Martin’s proposal, noting that the FCC had waited “too long” to take action to fulfill its national-security obligations granted under the 1934 Communication Act. Copps had proposed the creation of such an FCC bureau during a keynote speech at the conclusion of this year’s APCO annual conference in August—a speech delivered days before Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S.

“In addition to working on specific interoperability and redundancy challenges, this bureau should serve as convener, facilitator and expediter, helping local public-safety organizations share ideas, prepare plans, vet proposals and coordinate them with both government and industry,” Copps said. “Why should every jurisdiction across this broad land have to start at square one when others have already done a lot of work?”

Willis Carter, first vice president of APCO and chief of communications for the Shreveport, La., fire department, testified that 911 service was impossible in some areas and that communications to field units was “very limited.” In addition to the hurricane winds damaging tower and transmitter sites, power outages and flooding rendered many public-safety communications systems useless, he said.

Among other things, Carter recommended that public-safety answering points (PSAPs) be considered to be “core elements” of the first-response structure and that all PSAPs—and their supporting infrastructure from commercial carriers—be “mirrored” in a remote location to provide an alternative when evacuation or technical problems require dispatchers to work elsewhere.

Carter also called for funding to ensure that public-safety networks are built to withstand “worst-case scenarios” and additional spectrum earmarked for disaster-related deployment of communications systems.

“Just as September 11th, 2001, helped to focus the nation on the communications issues facing our first responders, Hurricane Katrina has revealed that much still needs to be accomplished to provide public-safety personnel with the communications tools they need to protect the safety of life and property,” Carter said.

Carter was one of 12 witnesses to speak before the commission, which met in BellSouth’s emergency-response center in Atlanta. Multiple stories were told of the challenges—not just from the weather but also from gunshots being fired at technicians trying to repair infrastructure—and unprecedented cooperation between business competitors to restore communications.

Rod Odom, BellSouth’s network services president, said the hurricane reinforced the fact that modern communications networks “are increasingly dependent on power,” noting that many instances of communications loss were not a result of physical damage to networks.

“Many of the communications failures are not a failure of connectivity but a failure caused by a lack of power at point or another in the network,” Odom said.