Four months from now, our nation will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We will mourn the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters lost on that terrible September day.
Time can’t erase the pain nor diminish the horror of that memory. But in the days after the attack, we came together, a nation unified in prevailing against terrorism and tragedy.
In the rubble and ruin at ground zero, we committed ourselves as a nation to doing everything in our power to bring the evil perpetrators of that plot to justice. Thanks to years of painstaking intelligence work and a daring nighttime operation by Navy SEALs, this month we kept that commitment. The world is a better, safer place because of it.
But there were other commitments that we made after 9/11. And it’s time we kept those, too.
One early commitment was to do right by our first responders. We told them that we’d give them the tools they need to do their jobs. On that fateful September day, thousands of rescue workers rushed into the Twin Towers and risked their lives to pull survivors from the smoldering wreckage. Too many never made it out alive.
This unprecedented terrorist attack burdened our skilled and courageous first responders with overwhelming operational challenges — including an overloaded, incompatible and inadequate communications network.
Police, firefighters and EMTs dispatched to the scene used an assortment of incompatible radio equipment, operating with different or even conflicting capabilities on different bandwidths and frequencies.
Too many of those rescue workers couldn’t consistently reach one another or those trapped inside the buildings. Calls were dropped. Orders and warnings didn’t get to front-line responders. Critical on-the-ground information couldn’t be relayed.
When the first responder community and 9/11 commission studied this problem, the experts concluded not only that first responders were severely affected by insufficient technology, but also that the technology first responders needed was available if only the nation had taken steps to help them put it in place.
First responders need additional spectrum to ensure connectivity and seamless communication in times of crisis, and federal funding of such units should be prioritized, the 9/11 commission said in its groundbreaking report.
Nearly 10 years later, no such network exists. That’s a travesty — and one that I am determined to fix this year.
In January, I introduced a bill to set aside a portion of airwaves, or “spectrum,” to public safety. The spectrum will be used to build a high-speed nationwide wireless network for first responders. It will give public safety officials the communications capability that the 9/11 commission recommended — the same capability many teenagers have on their smartphones today.
Instead of outdated radios, first responders will have high-speed devices capable of transmitting video, image and data files.
They will be able to communicate seamlessly — from coast-to-coast — during a time of crisis. Firefighters will be able to download detailed floor plans before rushing into burning buildings. EMTs will be able to send pictures from an accident scene to doctors in the emergency room.
This kind of situational awareness will protect first responders and save lives.
What’s more, constructing this network won’t cost taxpayers anything. That’s because my legislation is fully paid for.
More than 100 economists agree the incentive auctions that my bill calls for are smart spectrum policy. These auctions will raise billions beyond what is needed to pay for building the public safety network — funds that will go directly toward paying down the deficit.
My plan also has broad support from national and local organizations that represent firefighters, sheriffs, governors and more. It’s not just good policy — it’s the right thing to do.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we have a historic opportunity to honor our public safety officials not just with words, but with deeds. It’s time to invest in the brave men and women who risk their lives so the rest of us can be safe and to send this bill to the president to sign into law.
Let’s rally again, as one nation, to give our first responders the tools they need to do their jobs. Let’s keep our commitment to them — and finally fulfill one of the last major recommendations of the 9/11 commission.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is chairman of the Commerce Committee.