The nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security said Congress has “failed” America’s first responders by not acting on legislation that would dedicate wireless communications spectrum to a nationwide, interoperable, public safety network and said it is unlikely anything will pass before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
“It’s wrong. It’s really wrong for them to have failed these first responders,” said Tom Ridge, appointed by President George W. Bush shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to lead the homeland security effort, and who subsequently became America’s first Secretary of Homeland Security in 2003.
In an exclusive interview with Breaking Gov, Ridge called Congress’ 10 years of inaction on this key and final recommendation of the 9/11 Commission “a bloody outrage,” and said he was concerned we might be having the same conversation a year from now.
“It’s a sad commentary on the political system in the United States of America when [interoperable wireless communications for firemen, police and emergency personnel was] one of the number one priorities outlined by the 9/11 Commission, and we still haven’t summoned the political will to get it done,” said Ridge.
There have been a lot of speeches praising the courage and the sacrifice and the commitment of our first responders. I’m tired of speeches.” – Tom Ridge
In June, the Obama Administration publicly announced its support to transfer a swath of wireless spectrum known as the D block to first responder agencies for the purpose of building such a network.
But that decision put the White House at odds with a powerful faction of wireless companies that continue to pressure Congress for a public auction of the available spectrum. Those companies argue the spectrum is critical to American competitiveness in an increasingly wireless world and a sale would raise an estimated $28 billion that could be applied to deficit reduction.
Meanwhile, there have been a series of competing bills making their way through Congress, most notably Senate Bill (S. 911)– the “Spectrum Act” – sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.). The bill would allocate a 10 megahertz portion of the D-block directly to public safety, and allow the FCC to conduct incentive auctions of other spectrum bands to wireless companies and use the proceeds to launch and operate the wireless public safety net. The bill has passed the Senate Commerce Committee but the House failed to take action on the bill before lawmakers left for the August recess.
But with just three weeks to go before Americans pause to remember the victims of 9/11, including the hundreds of firemen and police who perished trying to save others and whose outdated radios failed to pick up evacuation orders before the Twin Towers collapsed, passage of legislation seems unlikely.
“It’s not going to happen before 9/11, and I hope you and I aren’t talking shortly before the 11thanniversary and having the same conversation,” said Ridge. “There have been a lot of speeches praising the courage and the sacrifice and the commitment of our first responders. I’m tired of speeches.”
Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said the public safety community will continue to fight for the communications technology that is so desperately needed.
“All of this nation’s first responders spoke with one voice when we requested congress to provide a single national communications network for responders. It’s a sad testament when congress struggles to get that job done,” said Johnson.
Sean Kirkendall, a spokesperson for the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), called the likelihood of Cogress not acting on the Spectrum Act before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 “highly disappointing.” The PSA, he said, shares the “mounting frustration” voiced by Ridge and others.
“It is fast becoming way past time for individual Members and congressional leaders to bring this matter to a vote and be held accountable,” said Kirkendall. “Every day of delay is yet another day of risking the safety of our citizens, as well as those who work so hard to protect them.”
Ridge acknowledged the multitude of competing interests in the available wireless spectrum, including the preference of public safety agencies to manage and control their own network and the wireless industry’s desire own the spectrum and leverage any unused portions for commercial purposes. But for Ridge, the time for debate passed long ago.
“At the end of the day, just get it done,” said Ridge. “There are a lot of ways to get there. Give us the technology so that we can stream voice, video and data. The technology exists. Build it.”