Money is the focus
Most emergencies, whether large or small, begin at the local level and involve first responders almost exclusively during the first 24 to 48 hours.
That was the message Glen Nash gave to U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Penn., and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the June 5 Homeland Security Summit conducted in Washington by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials. Nash was president of APCO at the time of the conference.
“The wireless industry needs to be a key player in the political process,” Weldon said during the conference in the Ronald Reagan Building. “These are big issues facing our nation, and we need good leadership; we need more organizations like APCO.”
He added that trusting the government to make the right decisions without input is a risky proposition, as far as public safety radio communications networks are concerned.
“Things don’t just happen because they make sense,” Weldon said.
“The government wants detailed requests about what public safety agencies need,” Nash told MRT after the conference. “Washington doesn’t want people to turn up and just say, ‘Give us money!’”
Yet, together with radio spectrum, money is the focus when it comes to improving first responders’ radio communications. Money can make it possible for counties to unify police, fire and emergency medical service communications into a single radio system, achieving interoperability.
Previous federal grants have helped state and local governments to purchase computer-controlled cross-connect switches wired to radios that are compatible with those used by agencies in their area. The result is an over-the-air interoperability that can be activated when needed.
Interoperability can even be as simple as exchanging hand-held radios among departments for access to each other’s frequencies.
Nash said that, for the public safety community to receive the funding it needs, it must speak with a single voice — whether the voice is APCO or some other national body — and it must know what it wants. In describing what it wants, the public safety community has to be highly specific, he said.
At the time of the conference, the fiscal 2003 federal budget hadn’t been passed.
“Nobody is really committing any dollars at the moment,” Nash said. “There’s been talk in Washington and everywhere about $3.5 billion being made available for first responders for homeland security, but nobody at this point is really sure how those dollars would be divided up, who would have control over them, and how they would be distributed.”
Despite the uncertainty, Nash said that local governments should formulate their homeland security radio communications plans, so that they can file as soon as the criteria for grant applications are issued. That would improve the chances of police, fire, and emergency medical services for funding.
“Both Weldon and McCain made it clear that public safety agencies have to be aggressive with their respective congressional representatives,” Nash said. “In general, Congress knows that effective communications are key to providing homeland security, but they need to know what’s needed to make this happen.”
To help the process, APCO released a “White Paper on Homeland Security” in August at the organization’s national conference in Nashville, Tenn. A copy of the paper can be found on APCO’s Web site (www.apco911.org) and MRT’s Web site (www.mrtmag.com). The white paper is intended to offer a cogent, clear position for the public safety community.
Nash said that APCO’s homeland security initiative involved more than lobbying.
“We also need to put together a ‘Best Practices’ manual, to help educate our members on the best ways to handle these new and potentially overwhelming situations. After all, we’re accustomed to fighting fires, but not on the scale of the New York World Trade Center. We deal with collapsing buildings all the time, but again not on the scale of the World Trade Center. And when it comes to casualties, we’re not accustomed to dealing with thousands at a time, as was the case in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.”
Ultimately, Nash said, homeland security starts at the local level. For public safety end-users, a key component is reliable, interoperable communications.
Getting from the concept to the funding requires getting the message out. Discussions at the conference explained how decision-making is influenced from the ground up.
The managers responsible for 9-1-1 call centers and other public safety radio communication operation centers have to convince their bosses — usually the sheriffs, police chiefs and fire chiefs — that improved radio communications matters to homeland security.
The public safety agency heads need to convince mayors, city managers and county commissioners. The local political leaders need to convince their state legislators and governors. The states need to convince Congress and the president.
Publicity through newspapers and radio and TV outlets can help, as can community groups that traditionally support the efforts of public safety agencies.
Weldon told the audience at the APCO Homeland Security Summit that the public needs to know that first responders are on the front line of homeland security. If the public safety community can put that message across and get the politicians on board, the money will follow.
But if agencies sit back and wait, nothing’s likely to happen, Weldon warned.
Careless is a freelance telecommunications writer based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His e-mail address is [email protected].