Little-known federal law is causing headaches for grant applicants
Public-safety agencies vying for a portion of the $1 billion available through the Public Safety Interoperable Communications, or PSIC, grant program are encountering an unforeseen roadblock: the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The law requires that any program that receives federal funds, such as the PSIC — which is administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — must demonstrate that their projects will have no significant detrimental impact to natural and human environments, including those of a cultural nature.
Laura Pettus, PSIC communications program specialist, acknowledged at the National Conference on Emergency Communications — which was presented last week in Chicago by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications — that NEPA “is a nightmare.”
However, the NTIA recognized early on that the Department of Commerce, of which NTIA is part, failed to establish a framework for evaluating communications projects. 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. So, NTIA embarked on a year-long project to identify the five primary types of communications projects 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 would automatically be deemed as complying with NEPA. However, construction of a tower would not, and such an endeavor would require an environmental-impact assessment.
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.”
Grant applicants also should be aware that the program’s auditors are becoming “more stringent,” Pettus said. For example, they will be insisting that 100% of an agency’s match contribution 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.
States and territories also will have to demonstrate that they have in place a strategic technology reserve, or STR — which 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 reestablish 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.
The 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.”