Legislation aims to improve statewide communication to help first responders

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) | The Office of U.S. Rep. Donald Payne

First responders need interoperable emergency communications during a crisis, and legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) is aimed at ensuring states do not lose the gains they have achieved in this area.

Payne recently introduced the Statewide Interoperable Communications (SWIC) Enhancement Act of 2015, which would require that states have a statewide interoperability coordinator or delegate charged with coordinating emergency activities across all levels of government every day. The goal is to ensure that emergency personnel are able to successfully coordinate on activities that save lives.

“One of the major problems that our first responders have is arriving at an emergency, in another jurisdiction, and they can’t communicate with each other,” Payne told Bio Prep Watch. “This would tie one person in to making sure that we continue to move forward in interoperability state to state.”

Having one centralized official that has an overview of the needs throughout the state facilitates various jurisdictions working together, he said.

He cited an example in New Jersey, where the Newark fire department was responding to an emergency in Jersey City but those firefighters could not communicate by radio to the Jersey City department. 

“That’s a problem,” Payne said. “This just makes sure that they have the right equipment and the information they need to do the job and remain safe.”

Due to the elimination of the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program and reduced funding for homeland security grant programs, some states are eliminating SWICs, Payne said.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications testified to Congress last year that the number of SWICs had fallen to 26 in March 2014 from 44 in 2010, Payne said.

“Without the adequate funding there is a real risk,” Payne said. “It’s a really important government structure that has taken over a decade to build; and for it to be abandoned, we just don’t want that to happen.”

Payne said the SWIC bill has bipartisan support. The Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications will meet in open markup session on Thursday to consider several measures, including Payne’s bill.

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