House passes emergency communications bill

Etheridge ECB

Etheridge speaking about the Emergency Communications Bill.

Washington, D.C. — As North Carolina braces for the height of hurricane season, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday passed legislation introduced by Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) that would improve the ability of local, state and federal responders and governments to communication during emergencies.

Etheridge, the only North Carolina member of the Homeland Security Committee, worked with colleagues on the committee to draft the legislation, H.R. 5852, the 21st Century Emergency Communications Act of 2006,

“Our local first responders are on the front lines day in and day out. It is vitally important to our national security that they have adequate equipment to respond to a myriad of threats and events. We need to make the best tools available to our local first responders because when North Carolinians dial 9-1-1, the phone doesn’t ring in Washington, DC, it rings in our local communities,” said Etheridge.

Communication interoperability was a critical problem for first responders on September 11th, 2001, and one of the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations was for Congress to pass interoperability legislation. However, during the response to Hurricane Katrina, emergency responders were again plagued by outdated communication equipment and were unable to communicate with each other.

“America cannot afford another bungled response to a disaster because of failed leadership. Congress must act now to give our first responders the tools they need,” said Etheridge.

The 21st Century Emergency Communications Act now moves to the Senate for consideration. The legislation was originally included in a comprehensive bill drafted by Etheridge and other members of the Homeland Security Committee, H.R. 5351, the National Emergency Management Reform and Enhancement Act of 2006, which would reorganize and strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the Hurricane Katrina response. The Homeland Security Committee has approved H.R. 5351, and Etheridge continues to urge the Speaker to schedule a vote by the full House.

H.R. 5852 will:

· Elevate the Department of Homeland Security’s interoperability focus by establishing a new Office of Emergency Communications headed by an Assistant Secretary. It consolidates the SAFECOM Program and other Department of Homeland Security responsibilities relating to interoperability under this office.

· Facilitate the development of standards for interoperable emergency communications and prohibits homeland security funding from being spent on equipment that does not comply with the standards and statewide interoperable communications plans.

· Require the Department to conduct periodic assessments to determine emergency communications needs, current capabilities and identify the gap between the two and issue a National Emergency Communications Report to include recommendations on how the U.S. can accelerate the deployment of interoperable communications nationwide.