Report: Cities' communications still lacking
Updated 1/2/2007 10:33 PM ET E-mail | Save | Print | Reprints & Permissions | Subscribe to stories like this Subscribe to stories like this
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Emergency responders in most cities don't have the equipment and skills needed to communicate with each other during a crisis, according to a report to be released today by the Homeland Security Department.

Only six of the 75 cities and regions surveyed received top scores for "interoperability," or the ability to reliably communicate by radio. They were Washington, D.C., and its suburbs; San Diego; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Laramie, Wyo.

The report comes more than five years after the 9/11 attacks highlighted communications problems among fire, police and other emergency responders in New York City, at the Pentagon and at the crash site in Somerset County, Pa. The problems were especially acute at the World Trade Center, where firefighters couldn't hear police warnings to get out of the towers before they collapsed.

"One of the dramatic lessons of 9/11 was the cost in human life when we do not have at least command-level interoperability in cities and in regions," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last month.

Chertoff said the country has made "a significant amount of progress" toward better communication systems. But in regions where there are still gaps, he said, leaders of cities and towns with incompatible systems need to work to develop a better system that would help communication during a disaster.

Since 2003, Homeland Security has handed out $2.9 billion in grants for interoperable communications systems, and Chertoff said his department's grant programs will be heavily focused on communications improvements over the next two years.

The survey, he said, was designed to identify the gaps so they can be closed "as quickly as possible."

The lowest scores on the report went to Chicago; Cleveland; Baton Rouge; Mandan, N.D.; and American Samoa. New York City scored in the middle.

Outgoing House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King, R-N.Y., said communities immediately outside New York City have numerous communications systems that are incompatible with each other. That's also true in several other major urban areas, he said. "A lot of progress has been made," King said. But the report shows "how difficult an issue this is."

Congressional Democrats, who assume leadership of Congress on Thursday, are expected to address the issue as part of a campaign promise to pass all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The commission in 2004 cited the urgent need for "compatible and adequate communications among public safety organizations."
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