When appealing to Congress for additional funding for public-safety communications, the rallying cry typically focuses on large-scale events that included well-documented problems associated with responder communications, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

And federal lawmakers have responded, appropriating large sums of money for public-safety communications to address the interoperability issue during the past decade. But the money has not been used in the most efficient manner, according to Ben Holycross, radio systems manager for Polk County, Fla.

“We could have built an entire, brand-new P25 public-safety system for every public-safety user in this country with the billions of grant dollars that have gone down the drain for interoperability,” Holycross said yesterday during a pre-conference session at IWCE 2010.

But more alarming is the relative lack of attention toward disaster communications preparedness. It’s a topic Holycross knows well, as his county was hit by three hurricanes during a six-week period in 2004. He also traveled to Mississippi in 2005 to provide communications to an area hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Communications problems in the aftermath of Katrina were the subject of numerous after-action reports from a variety of federal agencies. Some appeared to address public-safety communications as an afterthought, some concentrated on areas of questionable relevance — “They’re worried about the 911 stuff? There was not a phone system [for victims] to make a call on,” Holycross said — and Holycross said has yet to meet anyone who went through the experience that was interviewed by an official associated with any of the reports.

Meanwhile, relatively little has been done to ensure that the next disaster does not result in similar communications problems faced in the aftermath of Katrina. For example, while Polk County and other agencies are willing to deploy teams to disaster sites, there is no database listing such assets and their locations that can be accessed quickly when a disaster strikes, Holycross said.

Such self-contained units are extremely valuable after a disaster that wipes out infrastructure—not only communications systems, but also items like power, water and sewage. To operate effectively without the benefit of such modern utilities — “it’s like taking a step back in time,” Holycross said — requires a tremendous amount of planning, training and equipment, all of which cost money.

During these economic times, it’s difficult for local governmental entities to find funds to support activities within their own jurisdictions, much less budget for deployable communications units that are designed to help in other geographic areas. Those that are willing to take such steps deserve support from the federal government, both financially and from a coordination standpoint.

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