House Republicans are blocking an attempt to spend $3.1 billion to help police and fire agencies communicate in emergencies, the Washington Post reports. As both parties intensified election-season rhetoric over national security, Democrats accused GOP leaders of shortchanging the well-documented need to improve communication among first responders. Republicans said they do not want to spend billions prematurely, saying more planning and coordination are needed. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff rebuffed calls for dedicated federal grants to upgrade equipment, coordinate plans, train emergency workers, and adapt common technology standards. Instead, he said, state and local leaders must first agree on radio codes and protocols. “This is not, frankly, a technology issue,” Chertoff told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday. “This is an issue of having community leaders come to an agreement.”
The inability of police and firefighters to talk by radio was a critical factor after the 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The U.S. Conference of Mayors says that 23 percent of the nation’s 60,000 police and fire departments cannot communicate with each other over the radio, one-third cannot talk to county sheriffs, and most cannot talk to state or federal agencies. Governors and state homeland security advisers say the issue is their top priority. At the end of this year, the federal government was supposed to make available to first responders a slice of the broadcast spectrum now held by television broadcasters. Congress changed the deadline to June 2009 and set aside $1 billion for gear.