Public safety agencies express concern over the fate of D-Block

Despite being one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the creation of an interoperable public safety network for first responders has remain stalled in Congress as lawmakers remain divided on how exactly to fund and create it. The most popular proposal is to allocate a band of radio spectrum known as "D-Block" to public safety agencies; however, legislators have thus far failed to approve the measure.

Worried that the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is planning to mark up a spectrum bill without a provision that would include D-block allocation, the Public Safety Alliance, a partnership of various public safety organizations, held a teleconference on Monday to discuss how it could setback efforts to create a comprehensive communications network.

First responders say that D-Block would provide them with more than just an interoperable radio network, but would also allow them to push video and data to police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders in the field.

"From my perspective and the perspective of fire chiefs, this issue is really about having a national architecture," said Jeff Johnson, executive director of the Western Fire Chiefs Association.

In today’s connected world, Johnson said that it’s important to be able to send things like electrocardiograms and live video feeds to emergency responders at the scene.

"The taxpayers have demanded that we share more," he said. "Crime is bigger than where a city limit starts."

Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey said that public safety agencies across the nation don’t currently have the spectrum necessary to do everything communications wise that they need to be doing.

"We do need this for public safety and it’s a shame 10 years after 9/11 we’re having this discussion," Ramsey said. "The average teenager with a smartphone has more capabilities than us, and that’s just wrong."

Former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who has joined the PSA in its efforts to get the D-Block spectrum allocated for public safety, said the issue gives lawmakers a chance to rally around a measure that has a lot of bipartisan support and show a sense of unity that has been lacking in Washington.

"I feel very, very strongly that it is about time the Congress of the United States listen to the 9/11 Commission and allocate the D-Block so our first responders can have nationwide communications capability," he said.

Ridge stressed that D-Block allocation is not just about responding to terror threats and urged lawmakers to show a sense of urgency when it comes to getting a bill passed as it will take several years to physically build-out the network.

"(D-Block) is an investment that will make America safer and far more secure," he said. "Luck is not a strategy. It’s not a matter of technology; it’s a matter of political will."

Though he didn’t know exactly when the markup would take place, San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore said that first responders will be present at the hearing to let their position on the subject be known.

"This is the time for us to act," said. Moore.

Even if Congress fails to push through a D-Block allocation bill this year, Johnson said that police officers and firefighters are not going to let the issue just fade away.

"Public safety will not leave this alone. We’re going to notice where our support comes from and where it doesn’t come from," he said. "We’re here and we’re not going away."