First responder devices still can’t talk to each other, Congress told

Nine years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, first responders such as police and firefighters are still imperiled by substandard communications technology.

Witnesses testifying to the House Science Committee's technology panel on Thursday said technological problems continue to put first responders in danger.

Mobile radio devices sometimes cannot communicate with other devices — even ones made by the same manufacturer — despite interoperability standards intended to guarantee just that, according to David Boyd, a director at the Homeland Security Department.

Boyd and Dereck Orr, a program manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said the need for action is “extremely urgent” and called for tests so to ensure technology operates across vendors, townships and agencies.

“The threshold has to be that we can look a fireman or a policeman in the eye and say that we’ve given them a program that when they hit the button” the device will work as promised, Orr said, noting that confidence is “lacking” among responders in the field.

The prevailing interoperability standard, Project 25, is issued by manufacturers rather than a third-party body, panelists said, and this means some devices pass certification even though they don’t work.

In contrast, consumer electronics devices are generally certified by external industry-created bodies. But no such entity exists for the smaller market of first responder equipment.

With government witnesses pushing for formal tests, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, warned against a “government mandate that will shut down innovation.” Any new test, whether industry-created or federally mandated, must be “Congress-proof,” he said.

Industry representatives and public officials differed on how detailed certification standards should be. Defending current levels of device interoperability, John Muench, a director at Motorola, said tests should not examine the “ones and zeros” of devices. Rather, it is the “Can you hear me now?” test that matters, he said.

But to ensure the highest level of confidence in the technology, “checking the ones and zeros is important,” Orr said.