Public-safety entities needing money to pay for system changes associated with narrowbanding LMR networks operating below 512 MHz would be able to apply for $400 million in federal funds under bipartisan legislation introduced today.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) and House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-NY) are co-sponsors of the bill, dubbed the Help Emergency Responders Operate Emergency Systems (HEROES) Act. The legislation would provide $400 million for narrowbanding upgrades and reallocate the D Block to public safety. The narrowbanding grant program would be supported from the proceeds of commercial auctions of federally owned spectrum.

Rothman said he learned of the need for narrowbanding funds after meeting with mayors and police and fire chiefs in his district, who noted that federal grant funds that could be used to offset narrowbanding costs are no longer available.

“It was the urgency of the matter as conveyed to me by the mayors, police chiefs and fire chiefs that got me to rush back to Washington to work with my staff and Chairman King’s staff in putting this bill together,” Rothman said.

With the FCC’s narrowbanding deadline of Jan. 1, 2013, just 15 months away, Rothman said quick action is necessary, whether the bill is approved as standalone legislation, as part of the joint debt commission’s proposal or as part of a jobs bill compromise.

“That’s clearly going to be the goal —to get the money out of the door to these communities to purchase these radios as soon as possible,” Rothman said.

Given the economic climate and local governments pondering substantial layoffs in the face of budget cutbacks, it is important that the federal government provide narrowbanding funds “to avoid a situation where our local property taxpayers are forced to dig further into their pockets to pay for an unfunded federal mandate,” Rothman said.

Funds to help pay for narrowbanding are much needed, so passage of the proposed legislation would be welcomed by first-responder agencies, according to Richard Mirgon, former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

“It’s definitely very much appreciated,” Mirgon said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “Our concern would be that, if the bill were to pass, that the funding would be allocated based on need and not necessarily by population or the traditional. In other words, let’s figure out who really hasn’t been able to narrowband because of funding issues and help them out.”