Establishing a nationwide, interoperable wireless broadband network that lets first-responder personnel share critical information with each other should be a priority for federal lawmakers, panelists said today during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee.

Entitled “The Attacks of September 11th: Where We are Today,” the hearing was conducted just three days prior to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that exposed interoperability flaws in first-responder communications. The most noted example was the fact that police officers at the scene received orders to evacuate the area before the World Trade Center towers collapsed, but many firefighters did not.

Currently, lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering several bills that would fund the buildout of a public-safety LTE network designed to resolve many interoperability issues, but none of the legislative proposals have been voted upon beyond the committee level.

“This is a source of enormous frustration for me, why we can’t solve this problem 10 years after the fact,” former 9/11 Commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton said during the hearing. “I think it’s less important which of these approaches is taken than it is to get it done. We cannot permit delay of this. We lost lives at 9/11, and we lost lives at [Hurricane] Katrina, because we were not able to get good communication.”

Hamilton said he favors reallocating the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety but said the most important thing is for Congress to settle its differences and provide first responders with the best communications tools possible, although no system can be guaranteed to work in all circumstances.

“Communications under best of circumstances are going to fail — it’s a chaotic situation,” he said. “But, going into the event, you want to have the best communications that you can, so my plea to you is to get this thing resolved.

“I think it’s an urgent question, and shame on us — shame on us — if we have not solved that problem when the next disaster strikes.”

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge echoed this sentiment

“To put it simply, ladies and gentlemen, the technology exists,” Ridge said during the hearing. “Where’s the political will to get it done?”

While the focus of the hearing was homeland security and terrorist threats, providing a robust, reliable broadband system for first responders would prove beneficial in numerous other emergency scenarios, Ridge said.

“The opportunity to get voice and data and video over broadband — not just in response of a terrorist attack but a natural disaster or a horrible incident … would dramatically improve public safety across the board,” he said.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) last year introduced the first legislation that would have reallocated the D Block to public safety. This year, King introduced a similar bill. Today, King said he believes that D Block reallocation is “absolutely essential” to ensure that public-safety agencies have the communications needed.

“There has to be communications specifically allocated to … first responders,” King said during the hearing. “No one wants to go through again what happened on Sept. 11, where there was an inability to communicate, and yet, 10 years later, we still have not taken any action.”