House approves bill to ease communications among first responders


By MATTHEW DALY
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON- The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill aimed at improving communication among police, firefighters and emergency crews.

If enacted, supporters say, the measure could go a long way toward fixing an all-too common problem: emergency workers unable to communicate with each other because they use different radio systems.

The bill, approved 414-2, would require that states and local governments develop guidelines among first responders to be eligible for federal homeland security grants. The measure stresses the importance of the issue by establishing a new Office of Emergency Communications, headed by an assistant secretary of homeland security.

The bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., called it a response both to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Both events demonstrated - with tragic effect - the reality that first responders from different agencies and jurisdictions still have trouble communicating with each other, he said.

"It is intolerable that our nation's law enforcement, fire service, and emergency medical services personnel still confront many of the same emergency communication problems I did as a rookie cop in 1972," Reichert said.

Some Democrats criticized the bill's timing, saying it was inexcusable that five years after the 2001 attacks - and a year after Katrina - the Republican-led Congress was finally getting around to addressing the issue.

"Time and again, the lack of interoperable communication has significantly hindered the ability of our nation's first responders to successfully do their jobs," said Rep Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

He and other lawmakers noted that some New York City firefighters never received a police warning to evacuate the World Trade Center's north tower because their radio system was incompatible with police communications.

"Four years later, as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, the same story emerged: Firefighters and police in the region didn't have the means to communicate," Thompson said.

Thompson and other Democrats complained that the bill does not authorize any federal money, and said states and local communities could be left to foot the bill.

Reichert challenged that, saying the Homeland Security Department has more than $1.6 billion in grant money available for local communities. The House bill would prohibit federal money from being spent on equipment that doesn't meet federal standards and statewide communications plans, Reichert said.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

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On the Net

Information on the bill H.R. 5852, is at http://thomas.loc.gov

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