Police and firefighters need a better way to communicate during emergencies

November 18, 2011

Published in the San Jose Mercury NewsPalo Alto Daily News and Santa Cruz Sentinel.

By Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo

Each one of us will never forget the ill-fated day of Sept. 11, 2001. Faced with the unimaginable, firefighters, Emergency Medical Services and police officers arrived on the scene, only to contend with an outdated radio communications system that prevented seamless communications among emergency personnel.

In many cases, firefighters could not speak directly with police, and police could not speak directly with firefighters, even though they were working together to save lives. While we will never know how many more lives could have been saved that day, we have a responsibility going forward to ensure that our first responders are equipped with a nationwide state-of-the-art, interoperable communications network.

A decade has passed since the attacks on our country, and Congress has yet to adopt one of the main recommendations outlined in the 9/11 Commission Report: creating a nationwide, interoperable communications network for first responders. Other events have reminded us of the importance of building such a network, including Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Virginia Tech. These heart-wrenching experiences drive home how important it is for first responders from any jurisdiction -- federal, state or local -- to be able to seamlessly communicate with each other using devices that support not only voice, but video and data as well.

To ensure we don't repeat the mistakes of the past, we need to reallocate a portion of our nation's airwaves, known as spectrum, for public safety communications. These airwaves will enable the seamless delivery of voice and data services among our first responders. With them, and a coordinated federal effort and sufficient funding, public safety will have a network that is sustainable in both the short and long term. Working with my colleagues in the House of Representatives, I've put forward a proposal that will accomplish these goals and ensure first responders can communicate with each other, using the latest broadband-enabled technology.

Today, first responders rely almost exclusively on voice communications. Through the power of broadband, a mobile app can give firefighters access to the floor plans of a burning building before they arrive on the scene. Imagine an app that allows an ambulance crew to relay in real-time a patient's vital signs to an emergency room doctor before the patient reaches the hospital. A next-generation, broadband-based network will equip our first responders with these innovative life-saving tools and much more.

As we think about the needs of our first responders, we can't forget about our nation's 911 call centers, which are often the first line of defense for those in distress. Every day, 911 call centers receive more than 650,000 calls across the country. The legislative proposal I've introduced also would provide state and local jurisdictions with the resources to transition to next generation 911 technologies, which would enable first responders to receive photos, video, and text messages, all of which can improve the quality and speed of emergency response.

Creating this network and providing lifesaving tools for first responders on the ground and in our call centers is not a partisan issue. It's time for Congress to pass legislation that will provide first responders with the communications tools and network they need to keep us safe. We can't afford to wait any longer.

Anna G. Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, represents California's 14th Congressional District and serves as the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology subcommittee. She wrote this for this newspaper.