Bin Laden’s demise could influence key public-safety debate

The death of Osama bin Laden could sway the debate over an expensive communications network for police and firefighters, analysts say.

Public-safety advocates welcomed President Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s death Sunday night and reiterated their calls for Congress to swiftly devote a valuable chunk of airwaves to an emergency network that they say would have prevented the deaths of many first responders in the 9/11 attacks. 

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Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has made the communications network his top priority this year, called for a renewed focus on making sure public safety agencies get speedy broadband so they can talk to each other in the event of similar attacks.

“The events of the last 24 hours have put the losses suffered 10 years ago by firefighters, police and other first responders back on the front page. This country owes these American heroes for making the ultimate sacrifice. Our public safety officials are always there for us and we have to be there for them. Lives were likely lost in the World Trade Center tragedy because of poor communications,” he said.

He called on lawmakers to support his plan, endorsed by the White House, that would devote a swath of airwaves to public safety. 

“First responders in this country deserve a national interoperable communications network — just as the 9/11 Commission recommended. We should vote on legislation to set aside spectrum and provide the resources for a nationwide public safety communications network,” he said. 

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) said the network might be even more vital after bin Laden’s death than before. 

“The unimplemented recommendations of the 9/11 Commission are no less important with Osama bin Laden dead than they were with him alive. In fact, they may well be more vital. Al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to plot attacks against our homeland,” he said. “It is still vitally important that we reallocate the [D Block of airwaves] to public safety so that our first responders can establish a national interoperable public safety wireless broadband network, which is exactly what they have been advocating for years.” 

Charles Dowd, the communications chief for the New York Police Department (NYPD), said the news of bin Laden’s death should spur Congress to act this year. 

“The need to remain vigilant and coordinate information-sharing in the wake of this great news underscores the urgency facing Congress to act and pass legislation to assign [the D Block of spectrum] to public safety and send it to the president for his signature, fulfilling the last major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission,” Dowd said. 

The Public Safety Alliance, a collection of influential advocacy groups, also drew on the occasion of bin Laden’s death to push for the network. 

Spokesman Sean Kirkendall emphasized that “there is more hard work for Congress and our federal government to do … to provide our first responders with the tools they need to make our nation safe.”

In a year when budget-cutting and the deficit have defined the conversation in Washington, the national outpouring over the national-security milestone revealed that the decade-old terrorist attacks remain a powerful political force — one that could overwhelm calls for fiscal austerity in the public-safety debate, analysts say.

“The renewed focus on 9/11 from bin Laden’s death probably will add some momentum for those in Congress looking to reallocate the D Block to public safety,” Paul Gallant of MF Global said.

An influential set of House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have endorsed a less expensive plan — universally panned by public-safety agencies —  that would ask first responders to share the airwaves with commercial wireless providers.

The White House and top congressional proponents of the expensive network have already framed it as a way to redress the 9/11 tragedies. They point to a finding from the 9/11 Commission that a network is critical to fortifying the country. 

Along with Rockefeller, King has introduced legislation, and key Senate Republicans have endorsed similar plans. 

Several House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans say a different plan can achieve the same goal without the enormous price tag. An analysis by the Federal Communications Commission last year found that crafting an affordable plan, rather than providing additional spectrum, is the most viable way to achieve a nationwide network. 

Some top House Republicans have yet to lay down a definitive stance on the issue, announcements that could ultimately define where their conference moves on the issue.