The ICE Age Cometh

Interoperable Communications Equipment continues to be a hot topic these days especially after the release of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007 report. The document was hypercritical of the continued lack of progress toward effecting Interoperable Communications in the first responder community. 

Fire and non-affiliated EMS departments have been eligible every year to apply to the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program for funding to resolve these issues. Regional approaches were encouraged but this created a dilemma for most departments: prioritizing that year's request either in favor of radios or vehicles and gear.

Some departments, who were within defined UASI regions, also had the option of using that funding stream to resolve their Interoperable Communications Equipment problems. Unfortunately, those of us outside of those regions were left with only one true choice of grant program from which to seek relief and that was AFG. But that situation may be correcting itself through recent congressional action. 

Up until recently, the limited availability of compliant equipment, and the subsequent high cost,, put much of it out of the financial reach of many departments, even with the few federal grants picking up the lion’s share of the financial burden. But the emergence of some new players into this arena has dropped prices significantly from what they were even two years ago. It means compliant communications equipment is finally now within the financial range of many departmental budgets or from grants they have access to. 

Partial solution
The NTIA Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant was brought forward this year as a one-time partial solution to some of these financial woes. On September 30, the grant program disbursed funding to the amount of $986,285,000 to the States and Territories for Interoperable Communications projects over the next three years.

Although the intent of this grant was for money to reach the local level, early signs indicate that the majority of states will be using the money themselves, without pass-through to the local agencies, for building out infrastructure in support of overall interoperability. The PSIC was also only a one-time grant with no continued funding coming from it in the future. 

The Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), recently pushed through legislation on House Resolution 1 during the 110 session of Congress in Washington, D.C. This bill sought to enact further changes as dictated by the 9/11 Commission report and directs the Secretary to create a new grant program to address Interoperable Communications for first responders. This bill was signed into law in August by President Bush and became Public Law 110-53. 

The law created a new grant program, the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant program. It recommends yearly appropriations for funding at $400,000,000 from 2009-2012. 

In addition, it outlines how the funding must be spent and distributed. The bill states that within 45 days of disbursement of funding to the states and territories, 80 percent of the funding must be obligated to local agencies. There will be a required 20 percent local matching dollar requirement from those winning awards.  

Its introduction can be seen as a small ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Having a separate program for all first responders to turn to, while trying to resolve their Interoperable Communications Equipment  needs, will eliminate the dilemma that many of these agencies are forced to deal with in regard to the safety of their members. It should no longer be necessary to make a choice between new personal protective equipment, vehicles and advanced training or pursuing interoperable radio and communications equipment. 

Tangible improvements
The proposed levels of funding, if appropriated at the levels outlined in the bill, is only about $92 million shy of what is currently in the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program now. Dedicating that total amount, specifically for the resolution of Interoperable Communications problems, should be a tremendous shot in the arm. Visible and tangible improvements to first responders' ability to communicate should improve dramatically and at a much faster pace than in previous years.
Agencies planning for ICE projects should begin in earnest the process of gathering information, statistical and historical data, identification of critical infrastructure concerns and developing those projects now. Proper engineering studies, composing and signing of MOUs, cooperative agreements and planning committees should begin now and get work started in developing a comprehensive program from a regional standpoint. To have any hope of getting a project awarded, it should encompass all first responder agencies within that area. The proposed solution or plan will need to withstand scrutiny and be consistent with pre-established State Homeland Security Emergency Communications plans and be consistent with SAFECOM and APCO/P-25 standard compliances.
Conducting a proper and comprehensive risk assessment will be crucial to being awarded funding in this program. Clearly identifying those risks will be crucial to the project's development and subsequent approval. You'll need to work closely with your designated State Emergency Communications directors during the early development stages of any project as these individuals will ultimately have to "sign-off" on the proposed plan's compliance with the state's pre-established emergency communications plans.
It would appear that the powers in Washington are not only now acknowledging that a persistent and pervasive problem exists, but finally putting some money forward in a true effort to resolve these issues. This stands to greatly benefit all first responder organizations throughout the United States. 

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