Lawmakers Query NTIA on Radio Failures Of First Responders During Navy Yard Attack

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Sept. 23 --Two senior Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a letter that first responder communications failures during the Sept. 16 Navy Yard shooting show the need to get the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) up and running.

First responder union officials recently said some emergency radios failed to work Sept. 16, causing D.C. police and firefighters to use their personal cell phones or send people to communicate outside of the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command building where Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 people.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) , Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) told Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and Larry Strickling, the administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), that they need investigate what went wrong and ensure that FirstNet addresses the communications failures.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112-96) created FirstNet, set aside 10 MHz of spectrum and appropriated $7 billion to build a nationwide interoperable broadband network for public safety officials. FirstNet is an independent authority within the NTIA and the FCC is currently drafting rules for a broadcast spectrum incentive auction whose proceeds will subsequently fund FirstNet's development.

Advance Notice

“Press reports of the Navy Yard tragedy indicate that some of the radio problems experienced by police and firefighters at the scene -- including inadequate indoor coverage, radio interference caused by fire alarms, and the inability to communicate with non-Navy first responder radio systems -- were known long before the shooting and that little was done to solve these issues,” the letter said.

“It is imperative that we understand what happened to these communications systems and why,” the letter said. “And it is critical that the lessons of this latest tragedy be passed along to FirstNet, so it can design the future network to avoid such communications breakdowns.”

The letter comes as the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology prepares to hold a FirstNet oversight hearing during the first week of October, committee aides separately told Bloomberg BNA. The hearing has not yet been announced and a subcommittee spokesman did not comment Sept. 23.

Firstnet Already Investigating

The FirstNet board of directors, which is tasked with developing the nationwide interoperable communications network for first responders, said it is already investigating the communications issues that occurred during the Navy Yard shooting.

FirstNet General Manager Bill D'Agostino said during a Sept. 23 board meeting that FirstNet is working with D.C. first responder officials “to understand what we can learn from this incident.” D'Agostino said FirstNet employees are also working with first responder officials in Massachusetts and Oklahoma to learn from the communications problems that occurred in the responses to the Boston Marathon bombing and the tornado that struck Moore, Okla.

The FirstNet board released a report at the Sept. 23 meeting concluding that the board has conducted open and transparent decision making in response to allegations from some first responder groups that the board lacks transparency and disregards the needs of public safety officials.

The FirstNet special review committee concluded in its Sept. 20 report that the board's pre-meeting briefings and weekly calls were “informational briefings that did not constitute decision making, voting or otherwise narrow options in such a manner so as to preclude issues that would appropriately be considered by the board in public session.” At an April 23 FirstNet board meeting, board member Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald of Story County, Iowa, said he was concerned that FirstNet was not engaging in open and transparent decision making as is required by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, (D-W.Va.), recently accused Motorola Solutions Inc., of “financing a public relations and lobbying campaign” to say the FirstNet Board lacks transparency in order to “erode support for FirstNet's work and mission.” A Motorola spokesman subsequently denied that it was seeking to undermine FirstNet's authority.

Creating FirstNet is the last unexecuted recommendation of the 9/11 Commission which noted how first responders experienced pervasive communication problems during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at

For more information read the lawmaker's letter here:

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