The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would create a national interoperability office within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and mandates that equipment purchased with DHS grants comply with interoperability standards.

Originally part of a FEMA reform proposal that may not reach the House floor, public-safety interoperability components of the legislation with bipartisan support were included in this separate bill—HR 5852, the 21st Century Emergency Communications Act of 2006. Introduced just last week, the bill moved quickly through the legislative process and passed the House yesterday by a 414-2 vote.

“I am relieved that, even with the failure to reform FEMA, our nation’s first responders will receive the much-needed upgrade to their disaster-response communications they deserve to continue protecting our nation,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a prepared statement when the bill was introduced.

If passed by the Senate, the legislation would establish an Office of Emergency Communications that would consolidate the interoperability efforts of DHS and the SAFECOM program. It also would mandate that DHS periodically assess emergency-communications needs and make recommendations.

The bill also includes language that ties DHS grant money to the interoperability effort, said Yucel Ors, legislative director for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

“If [emergency-response entities] are going to use the money to buy systems that aren’t interoperable, they have to provide a good reason why,” he said ”If they don’t provide a good reason, they won’t be able to get the money … They’re trying to get the standards accepted by public safety.”

Ors noted that the bill does not include any authorization or appropriation for new funding for interoperability.

APCO supported the concept of a national emergency-communications office when the item was part of the FEMA legislation, Ors said.

“It’s a fast-moving bill, and there were some modifications made … and we’re still evaluating those changes,” he said. “But, at this time, we don’t see any overwhelming issues. It seems to be moving in the right direction.”