June 05, 2002

Wyden Addresses E-911 Homeland Security Summit

"As a United States Senator and as Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, I've spent a lot of time since September 11 looking at this nation's response to the terrorist attacks and at our readiness to respond to another assault. Firefighters, police and first responders from all over the country have convinced me that strengthening the structure of our public safety communications systems today may literally save American lives tomorrow."I've been involved in 911 issues for much of my time in the U.S. Senate. In 1999 I teamed up with Senator Burns to pass the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act. Our legislation established 911 as the universal emergency telephone number in the United States. Senator Burns and I also called for coordinated federal, state, and local efforts to implement wireless E-911. "The events of September 11 only reinforced my conviction that this country's wireless users need E-911, and they need it now. On that day, cell phones and text messaging were a crucial communications link. Many landline facilities were destroyed or went down. "That was an extraordinary circumstance, but emergencies on a smaller scale happen every day. More than 30 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones. Only in communities with the added capability of E-911 can operators pinpoint those callers' locations automatically, and send the right help to the right place - right away. "Last week I was proud to be in my home state of Oregon, where Enhanced 911, or E-911, technology reached the West for the first time. Thanks to Edge Wireless and Airbiquity, 911 operators in a rural four-county area are be able to pinpoint the location of a person calling 911 from a mobile phone, from wherever they call. "The fact that these Oregon counties rolled out this technology in May of 2002 is important for several reasons. Just last October the FCC agreed to requests by the nation's wireless carriers to extend a deadline to have 911 location technology up and running. Now some companies have until 2003, some until 2004 to start implementing Phase II. "This rollout proves that rural areas can lead the way in the E-911 effort. I believe Oregon can be a model for the nation - particularly for rural areas - in making E-911 a reality. They are also showing how cooperation between private interests and state and local governments can dramatically improve public safety. "Last October at a Senate hearing on E-911 technology, I urged wireless companies to get together with the public safety community and not just meet their new deadlines, but beat them. Folks in my state have proved that a rollout of Phase II technology can be done sooner rather than later. "In my view, it is absolutely essential that this country move quickly to marshal the best technology available against terrorism. Since September 11, my Subcommittee has held four hearings on ways to mobilize America's science and technology experts in this fight. A number of good ideas have come out of the hearings. One was the creation of a volunteer corps of technology experts - the National Emergency Technology Guard, or NET Guard. This volunteer force would be ready to arrive on the ground at a moment's notice and deal with technology challenges at disaster sites. I have already introduced bipartisan legislation to create that NET Guard. I am proud to report that this bill has been reported favorably by the Senate Commerce Committee and is on its way to the floor of the Senate this summer. "All of you knew long before September 11, the problems posed by communications difficulties in a crisis. Before last fall's attacks, though, issues like achieving interoperability weren't very high on the list for most lawmakers. I'll confess that I was not aware of the communications challenges you face until they became so apparent in New York and Virginia. But I'll tell you - Washington was shaken into awareness in the worst possible way. "A fire chief from Northern Virginia testified to my technology subcommittee that on September 11, he literally had people running handwritten notes around at the Pentagon. That was his most dependable form of communication. That really struck me: here on the East Coast of the United States, arguably the world's greatest high-tech communications corridor, tin cans and string would have been an improvement. The communications systems of our folks on the front lines were all but useless when seconds counted to save lives. "Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh was a witness at that same hearing. He testified that achieving interoperability for public safety communications systems would make the biggest difference in our ability to respond to crises. "I believe there are two components to successfully achieving interoperability: the application of technology, and cooperation between agencies. "Of course, the technologies to achieve interoperability exist today. Since September 11, the federal government and local response agencies have been inundated with ideas from the nation's technology sector. Their innovations cover every possible aspect of disaster response. Software technologies can actually change the setup of communications systems on short notice. They can enhance interoperability when it's needed most, and minimize interference when it's not. "The best new disaster response technologies must not get trapped in a Federal employee's in-box. They can't be awaiting review while lives are on the line. So my bipartisan legislation also creates a Center for Civilian Technology Evalution. This center will establish an online portal, where any any technology expert or entrepreneur can get ideas to the right federal agency for consideration. "The next piece of the puzzle is helping local response agencies acquire and apply these technologies. For this reason, my bill also provides $35 million for seven grants. The grants will provide the "seed money" for states working to launch innovative interoperability projects. "I don't want a one-size-fits-all solution for local responders. These pilot projects will be a breeding ground for fresh ideas from folks on the front lines. Police, fire and medical first responders will get the technology they need and find new ways to integrate their systems. I believe these pilot projects will develop a variety of useful models for interoperability. "But a key component to the success of these projects will not have much to do with technology at all. Leaders at local agencies will have to look beyond their own narrow jurisdictional concerns. The capability of the entire first-response community will have to be considered. "Most communities can't fork over enormous amounts of money to outfit local agencies with new communications systems. Bridges will have to be built between existing technologies. Cooperation between agencies will be essential. "Police, fire and emergency medical personnel didn't operate in vacuums before September 11. These agencies work together all the time. But achieving the kind of interoperability that a major disaster needs will require real collaboration in advance. "Let me give you an example of the kind of forward thinking I want to encourage - and the kind of collaboration that must be done. The Senate Intelligence Committee has just approved my legislation, creating a terrorist tracking system in the Federal government. It requires that America's intelligence agencies enter information about known and suspected terrorists or terrorist groups into a central database. The database will be available across the spectrum of intelligence and law enforcement agencies - right down to the local level. "I won't give you the lecture about the need for this collaborative tracking system. That's all too clear in the daily news, where the FBI and the CIA are fighting it out over whose fault all these intelligence failures are. But I will say that I can't believe it took nine months and a bill in Congress to get the ball rolling on information sharing. "One of the key requirements for this database is that it be built with an eye to interoperability. The Director of Central Intelligence must make this new terror-fighting tool accessible through the systems local communities already have. This terror-tracking plan won't work if local folks have to struggle to access it. Interoperability must be a component of its planning - and cooperation between agencies is the only way it will work. "September 11 ushered in a new day for first responders in this country. Police and firefighters and medical workers started getting the recognition they deserved, but the level of responsibility for these agencies also increased tenfold. Applying the lessons of September 11 now is essential. It will not be easy. But I want to assure you of my support, and the support of my colleagues, for the important work that you do. Working together, we can help first responders work together better when lives are on the line. I thank you for your invitation to speak today."