Lawmakers want probe of Navy Yard faulty first responder radios

Democratic lawmakers are calling on federal regulators to investigate reports that first responder radios failed during last week's shooting at Washington's Navy Yard.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) sent a letter on Monday to the heads of the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, urging them to work with other federal and local officials to investigate the problems.

"It is imperative that we understand what happened to these communications systems and why," they wrote.


They also urged the officials to ensure that FirstNet, a planned nationwide wireless network for first responders, avoids similar communications breakdowns.

"This horrific incident serves as a further reminder just how critical it is for FirstNet to succeed in its mission," they wrote.   

The Hill reported last week that some federal firefighters and police officers were unable to communicate with their radios during the Navy Yard attack. Some equipment stopped working as officers ventured into buildings, and at least one officer was forced to rely on his cellphone, according to union officials for first responders.

There were also widespread reports of battery problems that prevented the radios from working.

In a separate statement, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.) said the radio problems are "another reminder that we’ve got to modernize the way our first responders communicate."

"Once launched, the communications network FirstNet is building will support federal, state, and local first responders so they can communicate seamlessly across an interoperable broadband network,” Rockefeller, one of the champions of the network, said.

Congress authorized the public safety network last year as part of tax-cut extension legislation. The network, which is still being designed, is intended to prevent the kinds of communications problems that hampered the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

The 9/11 Commission Report recommended that Congress set aside frequencies and funding for the network, which will allow officials from different agencies to communicate with one another during emergencies. The network is intended to allow responders to share high-quality videos, audio and other data in real-time.

Emergency responders lobbied heavily for the network, and although there were disagreements over the details, it ultimately won bipartisan support.

But funding for the $7 billion network is dependent on the FCC raising enough revenue from its planned auction of airwave rights to cellphone carriers. The FCC aims to hold the auction sometime next year.

“The FCC will continue to monitor, evaluate and respond as needed to help ensure our nation's communications infrastructure works when people need it most. These are the times when Americans must be able to communicate with family, friends and emergency personnel,” said acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn in a speech last week.

— This story was updated at 4:57 p.m.