Palo Alto's effort to improve communications between first responders during major emergencies could get a boost thanks to an effort led by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, to provide airwaves in the nation's broadband spectrum to emergency operations and to give grants to local jurisdictions for new infrastructure.
Eshoo's advocacy for providing police and fire departments across the nation with what is commonly referred to as "next generation 9-1-1" tools became law in February, when President Barrack Obama signed a payroll-tax extension that includes provisions of the bill Eshoo has long championed. The provision includes $115 million in grants to states and local agencies to boost their emergency-response infrastructure.
The idea of improving interoperability between emergency responders was one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission in 2004. The commission had found that the response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was severely hampered by poor communications between firefighters and emergency responders.
The grants will be released at a time when Palo Alto is aggressively pursuing its own effort to integrate its emergency communications with those of its neighbors. The city has joined Mountain View and Los Altos in a "virtual consolidation" project that will allow emergency departments at the three cities to share radio frequencies and back each other up accordingly.
The ideas championed by Eshoo and included by Obama in the tax-exemption bill aim to take this philosophy to a national level. Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns, who joined Eshoo in a San Jose press conference Monday, April 23, to talk about the new law, said the program, once established, will boost the ability of police officers, firefighters and medical responders to share information with other agencies. The city is part of the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority, a regional agency charged with improving communications between jurisdictions.
While it remains to be seen where the grant money would be allocated, Burns said he expects the regional agency to be a candidate.
"Because we already have this governance model, we're pretty well-situated to get some of this money," Burns told the Weekly.
Burns compared the new generation of 9-1-1 tools to apps on an iPhone. The technology gives emergency responders a broad range of tools for sharing information, including text messages, emails and video.
"We're just going to have a much better way to communicate across regions," Burns said, referring to the potential grant-funded improvements. "It would be especially useful during large-scale emergencies."
Charles Cullen, technical services director at the police department, told the Weekly that the three-city network is expected to be in place within the next year and a half. The $3 million effort by the three cities took a major stop forward in February, when the cities approved the first major piece of the project -- a $2.3 million computer-aided dispatch system that would be shared by emergency responders from the partner agencies. Cullen said the city now has to make sure that the improvements it is pursuing on the local level are compatible with the new national effort to improve emergency-response communications.
"I certainly think we're moving toward a network solution with our partners in Mountain View and Los Altos," Cullen said. "To be connected with the larger infrastructure is really what the bigger project is all about."
Eshoo has long advocated devoting more funds to "next generation 9-1-1" technology. Earlier this month, she released a statement recognizing April as the "National 9-1-1 Education month" and touting the importance of new emergency-response technology, which she said "will give local call centers the capability to receive text messages, photos and video from people at the scene of an emergency."
"In life-threatening situations, this enhanced information is vital to first responders," Eshoo said.