Homeland Security Report Shows Big Gaps in Emergency Communications

Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995: Police and federal authorities have difficulty communicating as they respond to the deadly bombing of a federal office building.

New York City, Sept. 11, 2001: Firefighters cannot hear police warnings that the World Trade Center towers might collapse, because their radios are on different frequencies. Hundreds of first responders die.

Years after the problem of radio communications between local and federal agencies in the midst of emergencies was first raised, the problem still remains -- that's the bottom line of a new Homeland Security survey of 75 regions around the country.

The report on the interoperability of emergency radio equipment suggests that in many regions, local, state and federal emergency and law enforcement personnel could not effectively communicate during a crisis.

According to the report, "Leadership and planning across regions has lagged."

Forty-five percent of the communities surveyed showed significant gaps in their plans for communicating effectively across jurisdictions during a catastrophic event that spreads over a locality's borders. Eight percent of the regions contacted were still in the early stages of developing a plan.

The survey also addressed how well response agencies could use their existing interoperable equipment in a crisis.

Nearly a third of communities showed gaps in their ability to use their equipment effectively. In addition, one-third of the communities surveyed in the report had not put procedures and guidelines for large-scale emergencies fully in place.

According to the report, 40 communities had significant gaps in their plans to update and improve regional radio communication capability during a catastrophe, including Miami, Denver, Atlanta, Honolulu and Chicago. Only six communities of the 75 surveyed received the highest mark for readiness. They were Washington, D.C; San Diego; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Columbus, Ohio; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Laramie County, Wyo. New York City, while it showed some gaps, was making good progress toward becoming fully operational, the report said.

Democrats blame the Bush administration for the gaps in radio coverage.

"This report is Exhibit A in the case against the Bush administration's ability to respond in a post-9/11 world," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., incoming chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. "While the president has wasted billions fighting the war in Iraq, he's nickel and dimed Homeland Security -- leaving firefighters, police and other first responders to fend for themselves when it comes to communications systems."

But Homeland Security officials point out that the federal government has provided local governments with more than $2.1 billion in funds to upgrade and coordinate radio communications since 2005.

Some officials said the question of why more has not been done should be directed to local officials.