The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members yesterday approved a bill that would provide $400 million in state grants during fiscal year 2006 to improve the resilience and compatibility of first-responder communications systems.

Introduced by committee chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) this week, S 1725 calls for grant funding increases during each of the next five years, hitting $1 billion in 2010. Overall, the Homeland Security Department would be authorized to earmark $3.3 billion for communications during the five-year period.

If enacted, the bill also would establish a new office within the Homeland Security Department focused on emergency communications, interoperability and compatibility. Currently, the department has a small interoperability office, but this legislation proposes a significant increase in funding and scope, said committee aide Leslie Phillips.

Last week, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin proposed that his agency create a bureau that would focus on first-responder communications and interoperability.

“Central to all this is coordination among all agencies,” Phillips said. “It’s Sen. Lieberman’s top priority that agencies not duplicate efforts.”

Upon introducing the legislation, Lieberman said the need for such measures were underscored by emergency personnel’s struggles to communicate in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“The attack of 9-11 highlighted the problem of interoperability, dramatically showing how vulnerable our first responders are in an emergency when police and firefighters are unable to communicate with each other,” Lieberman said in a prepared statement. “Hurricane Katrina spotlighted an even more severe problem, operability—the need for systems that themselves can survive a disaster, either natural or manmade.

“Katrina has shown us that without a working communications system a coordinated response to an emergency becomes close to impossible. This bill addresses the challenges of both interoperability and operability.”

In addition to Lieberman and Collins, co-sponsors of the bill are Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).