Staten Island Advance
December 5, 2003

Feds could fund better radios for cops, firefighters

By TERENCE J. KIVLAN

WASHINGTON -- Legislation authorizing a federal funding program to enable cops and firefighters to maintain radio communication with each other in crisis situations was introduced in the House yesterday, sponsored by two New York City lawmakers and a colleague from Michigan.

The legislation was submitted by Rep. Vito Fossella (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn), Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) and Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan.

Because individual first-responder agencies now broadcast messages on different frequencies, "firefighters cannot talk to police, local police cannot talk to state police, and so on and so on," said Fossella in a letter circulated this week among all congressional offices.

"It is critical to fund radio equipment and technology so [rescue personnel] can talk to each other and be effective first responders," the letter said.

The legislation would authorize up to $500 million a year to promote radio interoperability among local first-responder agencies. The money would come from a trust fund to be financed from a portion of the revenues generated by the Federal Communications Commission's sales of radio frequency spectrums to commercial broadcasting groups.

The Department of Homeland Security has been allocating interoperability grants on a piecemeal basis to local police and firefighting units across the country from its general pool of funding. But local first-responder officials have been calling for a national program solely dedicated to the effort.

A study issued by a University of New Hampshire group last year estimated that about a third of the 343 FDNY firefighters killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center were within striking distance of safety when police helicopters began sending warning messages that the Twin Towers were about to come down.

Other reports, however, have suggested that many of the firefighters who died knew the towers could fall but were determined to continue their evacuation of civilians as long as possible.

Police and firefighter union officials in the city support the legislation.

"Communications at disaster scenes ... often spell the difference between life and death," said Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch yesterday.

But Jim Slevin, vice president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, cautioned that interoperability would have to be achieved in a way so as not to compromise "radio discipline."

"You don't want everybody to have the ability to speak with everybody on the radio," Slevin explained. "You want to have some control over the system so that important messages can get through."

Terence J. Kivlan is the Washington correspondent for the Advance. He may be reached at terence.kivlan@newhouse.com.