Congress Set to Approve National Radio Network for Police, Firefighters and Other First Responders

NY Daily News - February 17, 2012

by Alison Gendar

$7 billion deal would to build a national communication network across city, state, and network lines

WASHINGTON - One of the key recommendation of the nation's 9/11 Commission - a national emergency radio system - could finally get built as part of the deal to extend federal unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut.

The odd pairing - typical of congressional sausage making - would set aside some $7 billion to build a national communication network so police, fire and emergency responders can talk to each other across city, state and network lines.

"This deal is shaping up to be a big win for our first responders," Sen. Chuck Schumer said. "More than a decade after 9/11, we are going to finally establish the national network that will let emergency workers talk to each other so we can avoid repeating the communication failures of that tragic day."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said the new radio network will be a major upgrade over the antiquated current system.

"It's simply unacceptable when, as New York City Police Commissioner Kelly said in his testimony before Congress, 'a 16-year-old with a smart phone has a more advanced communications capability than a police officer or deputy carrying a radio,'" she said.

The deal was hammered out in a compromise package Thursday to extend the payroll tax break for working Americans, extend unemployment benefits and stave off a drop in payments to doctors who serve Medicare.

The emergency communications network became part of the compromise because building the system will generate billions in extra revenue.

Congressional negotiators signed off on a plan to auction the broadband communication spectrum, use some $7 billion in profits to build the emergency network and use the balance - upwards of $10 billion - to defray the cost of extending unemployment benefits.

The plan is to build a single network, with secure backup systems, so emergency crews can not only talk but share crucial documents like building blueprints or arrest records.

The nation's police, fire and rescue units currently rely on more than 55,000 separate radio networks.

Besides greenlighting the communications network, the compromise will extend a payroll tax cut to the end of the year for 160 million workers - a savings of about $1,000 for the average worker.

It will also prevent a 27% drop in payments to Medicare doctors.

Republicans agreed to extending the payroll tax cut without finding ways to pay for it, a move which increases the deficit by about $100 billion.

Congress is expected to vote on the deal Friday.