Imagine for a moment that you are running a race. It is a qualifying heat, so it matters not at all whether you win the race; the only thing that matters is that you beat the time set as the benchmark for moving on to the next phase of the competition. It has been a tough race, but as you come out of the last turn and move into the home stretch you are on pace to beat the qualifying time. Then disaster strikes: 50 yards from the finish line, a hurdle suddenly and quite unexpectedly appears in your lane. You have to figure out how to clear it — while remaining on pace — or all will be lost.

Many public-safety agencies find themselves in an analogous predicament as they vie for a portion of the $1 billion available through the Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant program, as little-known environmental regulations threaten to prevent entities from using their grants during the next 15 months as mandated by Congress.

The PSIC program can trace its roots to the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which authorized up to $1 billion for public-safety interoperable communications projects. The money was doled out by the National Information and Telecommunications Administration, a wing of the Department of Commerce. A year later, the Call Home Act of 2006 directed the NTIA to disburse the money by Sept. 20, 2007, which it did. Every state — plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and four U.S. territories — received grant money.

A deadline of Sept. 30, 2010, was set for the states and territories to approve the projects that would be eligible for PSIC grant funding and disburse the funds. Three years ago, that seemed like plenty of time. Twenty-one months later, some are concerned that the deadline won't be met, which will be a big problem for public safety because all undisbursed money at that point will go back into the U.S. Treasury.

"We're running out of time on this project," said Carolyn Dunn, PSIC program manager, who was one of several federal government representatives who offered grant guidance during the National Conference on Emergency Communications held in Chicago in April. "We have to get these projects moving, completed and done."

Legislation recently was introduced by Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) to extend the deadline by two years, an action that is endorsed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). But even though there doesn't appear to be any opposition to the bill, its passage is far from guaranteed, said Yucel Ors, APCO's director of legislative affairs. "Because there are so many other issues on the table right now, [lawmakers'] focus might not be completely on it." (See APCO expresses support for PSIC-delay legislation.)

In the meantime, agencies need to figure out a path to the money — and fast. Perhaps the most important step is to forge a relationship with the state administrative agent, said W. Ross Ashley, the assistant administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Administration's grant programs directorate, who also spoke during the conference. FEMA, a wing of the Department of Homeland Security, worked with NTIA to develop the PSIC grant program.

"This is critical, as most of the money goes to the SAAs," Ashley said. "So, they hold the purse strings and will be able to tell you how to get the money."

Other useful advice came out of the NCEC, which was presented by the DHS' Office of Emergency Communications and attended by about 400 public-safety communications officials from as far away as Guam. For instance, grant applicants should be aware that the program's auditors are becoming "more stringent," said Laura Pettus, PSIC communications program specialist, adding that they will be insisting that 100% of an agency's match contribution — equal to 20% of the grant request — is in place up front.

"You're going to have to be able to point to it, demonstrate that it is allowable and the auditors have to be able to verify it," Pettus said.

The match requirement has proved challenging for many agencies. "In at least one instance, [an agency] couldn't come up with the match, and the state took the money away and gave it to a project that had [a match]," Dunn said.

States and territories also have to demonstrate that they have in place a strategic technology reserve — STR is a Congressional mandate — before the NTIA signs off on their PSIC projects, Pettus said. The STR is a cache of equipment that would be needed to re-establish communications in the event infrastructure is taken off-line by a natural or manmade disaster.

"The auditors can ask to see the STR plan, and you will lose grant money if your state doesn't have one in place," Pettus said, adding that 18 states and territories have been granted temporary STR waivers.

Auditors also will be ensuring that agencies spend the grant money in the manner in which they said they were going to spend it.

"They're going to make sure that you're doing what you said you were going to do," Pettus said. "You can't tell us that you want money to deploy more base stations so you can get more users on the system, and then redirect the money to purchase a mobile command center. If your original plans change, you need to tell us."

Pettus also advised that public-safety agencies take note of the PSIC program's requirement that a statement of work be submitted for every project. The statement, which will be reviewed to determine whether the project complies with the PSIC program goals, should detail project parameters and timelines. Pettus described it as the "way of the future."

"You're no longer going to be able to self-certify," Pettus said. "All grant programs are going to start looking like this. It isn't an anomaly, but the beginning."

Even if an agency does everything right with its PSIC grant application, it still could get tripped up by the aforementioned roadblock: the National Environmental Policy Act. The law requires that any program that receives federal funds, such as the PSIC, must demonstrate that its projects will have no significant detrimental impact to natural and human environments, including those of a cultural nature. Pettus acknowledged that NEPA "is a nightmare."

Unfortunately, it's a nightmare that isn't going to go away. Making matters worse was the DOC's failure to establish a framework for evaluating communications projects to determine whether they comply with the law. According to Pettus, that meant that every project, no matter how big or involved, would have to be scrutinized on an individual basis, which likely would create enormous bottlenecks.

It's a point that hasn't been lost on federal administrators, Ashley said. "NEPA is an important process, but it will cause delays and we understand that. Our number-one goal is to get the money out the door as fast as possible."

To speed things along, NTIA embarked on a year-long project to identify the five primary types of communications projects, in order to streamline the NEPA-evaluation process. The categories include the following:

  • Transmission and receiving sites;
  • Operations and response centers;
  • Mobile/portable equipment;
  • Mobile infrastructure; and
  • Planning, training and exercises.

Within each category, the NTIA determined the types of activities that likely would have no significant environmental impact. For example, swapping out a base station at a tower site would fall under this designation and automatically would be deemed as complying with NEPA. However, construction of a tower would not, and such an endeavor would require an environmental-impact assessment before being started.

In isolated cases, auditors will accept environmental-impact assessments conducted on the state level in the preparation of a PSIC grant application to save precious time. "California, for instance, has more stringent requirements than those of NEPA," Dunn said.

Meanwhile, Pettus said the PSIC grant program has a technical-support team available to assist agencies in complying with NEPA. "We worked with a Virginia agency that wanted to place additional towers in order to improve coverage," Pettus said. "We helped them decide where to put the towers."

Donny Jackson contributed to this article.

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