McCAIN FLOOR SPEECH ON INTEROPERABLE COMMUNICATIONS FOR PUBLIC SAFETY OFFICIALS
September 13, 2005Mr. President, I have watched the news coverage along with so many Americans during these past two weeks and have been shocked and saddened by the devastation in the gulf coast region. It continues to amaze me that an act of nature can bring about such destruction and ruin on the lives of so many. My deepest sympathies and prayers go out to the residents of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. I know that as a country we will come together to assist these residents and help them rebuild their lives. In my home state of Arizona, I am proud to report that Valley residents have welcomed over 1,000 residents of New Orleans.
This was a tragedy of great proportions that caught local, state and Federal officials unprepared. Like many Americans, I too have been concerned about the local, state and Federal initial response to this disaster. It was unacceptable and inadequate. I know that there will be an appropriate time for a comprehensive review of the local, state and Federal response efforts to determine what went wrong, and what went right. The oversight investigations being held by Senators Collins and Lieberman are a very important undertaking. I believe Congress and the nation have a lot to learn from Hurricane Katrina.
One thing already evident is that the country’s local, state and Federal first responders remain unable to communicate with each other during an emergency response. We saw the horrors brought on by the lack of communications on 9/11 when New York’s fire, police and Port Authority officers were unable to talk with one another when responding to the collapse of the Twin Towers. I have now been told that the first responders in Louisiana experienced similar problems because New Orleans and the three nearby parishes all use different radio equipment and frequencies. In addition, Federal officials use entirely different communications systems than localities, which hindered relief efforts.
I read that New Orleans officials had purchased equipment that would allow some patching between local and Federal radio systems, but that the equipment was rendered useless by flooding. Nonetheless, short term solutions to link incompatible systems are not the right approach to this critical problem. The better approach is for this nation to get serious about public safety communications by developing and funding an interoperable communications system for all local, state and Federal first responders. The Federal government needs to (1) develop a comprehensive interoperable communications plan and set equipment standards, (2) fund the purchase of interoperable communications equipment and (3) provide public safety with additional spectrum so first responders can communicate using the same radio frequencies and equipment in the event of an emergency.
Congress has taken some steps toward achieving an interoperable communications system for local, state and Federal first responders. Last year, I offered an amendment that was enacted as part of the Intelligence Reform bill that authorized the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, otherwise known as SAFECOM. SAFECOM assists local, regional, state and Federal public safety agencies in developing interoperable communications plans and accelerating interoperable communications equipment standards. They are in the process of doing so and I urge them to move forward expeditiously.
Congress has also begun to fund the purchase of interoperable communications equipment for localities. Some 50,000 local, state and Federal agencies make independent decisions about communications systems and use various frequencies. This is unacceptable and a waste of government resources. The Department of Homeland Security has already spent over $280 million for the purchase interoperable communications equipment. The Senate passed Department of Homeland Security FY 2006 Appropriations would provide over $2.6 billion for localities to purchase interoperable communications equipment. This bill is currently being conference with the House. Obviously interoperability will come with a cost – some estimate as much as $15 billion – but even this may be a small price to pay in order to save thousands of lives in the event of another disaster.
And let’s remember that Congress also provided additional spectrum for first responders in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. So, after spending millions of dollars in funding and additional spectrum for our nation’s first responders why aren’t we better off than we were on 9/11 when it comes to interoperable communications? Because the spectrum Congress provided to first responders in 1996 is being held hostage by television broadcasters even though broadcasters have been given new spectrum. It was almost twenty years ago that broadcasters began their journey toward becoming “spectrum squatters.” In 1987, broadcasters first asked the FCC to look into the potential of digital television technology and whether additional spectrum would be necessary. Upon the broadcasters’ request, Congress provided new spectrum in 1996 to the broadcasters for free. I have often referred to this as the great $70 billion dollar taxpayer give-away. In return, broadcasters promised to give back their current spectrum by December 31, 2006, and make it available to first responders for interoperable communications.
But, before the ink was dry on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, broadcasters persuaded certain members of Congress to include an exception to the December 31, 2006 date in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. Last year, during a Commerce Committee hearing, then FCC Chairman Michael Powell testified that this exception could result in the first responders not receiving this spectrum for “decades or multiple decades.” As evidenced by the tragedies from Hurricane Katrina, we cannot wait decades. Broadcasters are blocking access to spectrum for first responders who serve over 50 percent of the country.
Providing first responders access to this spectrum is one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and remains a top priority for Chairman Kean and Vice Chairman Hamilton. I introduced legislation last year to implement this recommendation and it was voted out of the Commerce Committee. I then added the provisions an amendment to the Intelligence Reform bill last fall to provide this spectrum to first responders. Unfortunately, this language was removed at conference and replaced with a “Sense of Congress” that such legislation be voted on during the first session of the 109th Congress. Senator Lieberman and I re-introduced our legislation to provide spectrum to first responders yet Congress has yet to act this year as envisioned by the “Sense of Congress.” S. 1268, the “Spectrum Availability for Emergency-response and Law-enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services Act,” otherwise known as “The SAVE LIVES Act,” would provide first responders with the spectrum by January 1, 2009. Upon introduction, I suggested this date is a compromise between public safety organizations, equipment manufacturers, localities and broadcasters. However, after watching citizens suffer during recovery efforts in New Orleans, I believe this date should be moved up to January 1, 2007, as originally contemplated by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Yet here we are nine months into the First Session with another horrible disaster having taken place and Congress has yet to take up “The SAVE LIVES Act” or any other legislation providing first responders their promised spectrum. To what level of crisis must this country endure before we act? Is the devastation from Hurricane Katrina still not enough to bring action? Chairman Stevens has stated his intention to include such legislation in the Commerce Committee’s response to budget reconciliation. I will be watching to see if the broadcasters find a way to once again delay the hand off of this spectrum to first responders. I will do all I can to move our legislation.
In 1997, the President of the National Association of Broadcasters stated on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” that broadcasters’ use of spectrum allocated to first responders was merely a “loan to facilitate an orderly transition.” Mr. Fritts, this “loan” has gone on long enough. Congress must now call in your “loan.” You got your spectrum, now give the first responders their spectrum.
I will conclude by sharing 9/11 Commission Chairman Kean’s comments as stated on CNN’s Late Edition this past Sunday, “[w]hat’s frustrating is it’s the same thing over again. I mean, how many people have to lose their lives? It’s lack of communication, our first responders not being able to talk to each other.... Basically it’s many of the things that, frankly, if some of our recommendations had been passed by the United States Congress … could have been avoided. But on the ground, the people that get there first can’t talk to each other because the radio communications don’t work. They haven’t got enough what’s called spectrum. So there is a bill in Congress to provide first responders spectrum. The bill has been sitting in Congress, nothing has been happening, and again, people on the ground -- police, fire, medical personnel – couldn’t talk to each other. That’s outrageous and it’s a scandal and I think it cost lives.” I couldn’t agree more.
Mr. President, I want to end by thanking all of the first responders who are assisting in rescue efforts in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. They are heroes and make me proud to be an American. For over two weeks now, they have slept very little and eaten very little, but done so much for a region in need. In appreciation, we owe them better communications systems so that when they are called upon to assist in the next disaster, they have the tools necessary to protect themselves and those they are working to protect.