0

Anna Eshoo urges probe of Navy Yard radio failure

Rep. Anna Eshoo wants to know why first responders who rushed to the Washington Navy Yard during last Monday’s massacre had radio failures that left them using personal cell phones and runners to communicate.

Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, who is the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, joined with committee ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, in writing today to Lawrence Strickling, the Commerce Department’s assistant secretary for communications and information, and Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn to urge an investigation.

“If these reports are accurate, this will not be the first time communications difficulties impaired first responders during an emergency,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, there have been numerous communications system failures during recent natural disasters and national emergencies, most notably the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.”

Congress last year enacted legislation creating FirstNet, which is tasked with overseeing the construction of a nationwide, high-speed, interoperable broadband network dedicated to public safety. Eshoo and Waxman today asked that an inquiry into last week’s snafu also focus on how FirstNet might prevent similar communications breakdowns in the future; they requested an update by Oct. 21.

Read the full text of the letter, after the jump…

September 23, 2013

The Honorable Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
U.S. Department of Commerce
1401 Constitution Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20230

The Honorable Mignon Clyburn
Acting Chairwoman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20554

Dear Assistant Secretary Strickling and Acting Chairwoman Clyburn:

On September 16, 2013, the nation’s capital became the latest site of gun violence when twelve Americans lost their lives during the shooting at the Navy Yard. There are many unanswered questions surrounding last Monday’s events, and we want to ask you about one of them: the reports indicating that due to faulty radios, some first responders had to resort to their personal cell phones and “runners” to communicate as the tragedy was unfolding.

If these reports are accurate, this will not be the first time communications difficulties impaired first responders during an emergency. Unfortunately, there have been numerous communications system failures during recent natural disasters and national emergencies, most notably the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Last year, Congress enacted legislation to address these communication failures. Congress created FirstNet to ensure that first responders from public safety agencies across the country are able to communicate with each other through a common broadband network. Indeed, FirstNet’s mission is to prevent exactly the types of communications failures that reportedly occurred at the Navy Yard last week. This horrific incident serves as a further reminder just how critical it is for FirstNet to succeed in its mission.

Much work remains before the FirstNet network is up and running. One important part of this process is learning from past mistakes. We urge you to look closely at what happened at the Navy Yard to understand what went wrong and how FirstNet can be configured to address these failings. 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.

We urge you to work closely with all federal, regional, and local agencies investigating these concerns. It is imperative that we understand what happened to these communications systems and why. 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.

We look forward to working with you to address these problems and stand ready to assist if there is a role for Congress. We would appreciate an update on the results of your inquiry by October 21, 2013.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.