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Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program

Written by Dan Hawkins

Forever the crux of communications interoperability initiatives, funding will be a particularly interesting factor in 2007. Nearly $1 billion in new grants for interagency communications projects will be made by the end of the year through the Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) Grant Program.

Background

This new and largest of all interoperability grant programs is a byproduct of developments elsewhere in the telecommunications world and federal interest in radio frequency spectrum auctions. The fact that spectrum auctions have reliably generated billions of dollars has not been lost on Congress or various administrations over the past several years. Public safety agencies will soon be a beneficiary of auctions.

Since the mid-1990s, TV broadcasters have looked to digital technologies to meet ever-growing demands for high-quality transmissions and advanced features amidst perennial competition for spectrum. Long debates and many compromises has led to shuffling of TV spectrum to serve broadcaster needs, which coincidentally benefited public safety through an allocation of 24 MHz of added spectrum in the 700 MHz frequency. Congress also chose to auction off other 700 MHz spectrum freed up by the digital television (DTV) shuffle of broadcast channels.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (Public Law No. 109-171) set into motion the DTV transition and the PSIC Grant Program. It authorized the Department of Commerce—the agency responsible for the auctions—to create a grant program from auction proceeds in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security “to assist public safety agencies in the acquisition of, deployment of, or training for the use of interoperable communications systems that utilize, or enable interoperability with communications systems that can [public safety 700 MHz spectrum].” (Sec. 3006).

Auctions are planned well off in the future, but last October, the Presidential Office of Management and Budget approved disbursement of grant funds before the auctions in order to benefit public safety and meet subsequent requirements of the Call Home Act of 2006 (Public Law No. 109-459). This act requires issuance of the grants by Sept. 30, 2007.

PSIC Grant Program

The PSIC Grant Program will be jointly administered by the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security. The departments signed a memorandum of understanding on Feb. 16, 2007, establishing the DHS Office of Grants and Training (G&T) with primary responsibilities for issuance, monitoring, and support of grants. DHS was directed through legislation to use all existing granting programs and application materials to the extent possible for award of PSIC funds.

Program details are still being worked out. At the time of this writing (early March), the memorandum of understanding (MOU) is the only official announcement of program details that has been released. It is available online at www.ntia.doc.gov/otiahome/psic/PSICMOU_Executed_2-16-2007.pdf.

Further details will be announced at a workshop for statewide communications interoperability plans held in Los Angeles, March 21-23. The nation’s governors have been invited to send teams of up to five people to this workshop sponsored by SAFECOM and hosted by the National Governors Association. States will have a firsthand chance to work with DHS officials to begin sketching out their plans.

PSIC grants will be made to the 56 states and territories based on the current DHS risk methodology at the time of awards. They will be provisional, allowing the department to meet the fiscal year end (Sept. 30) deadline required by the Call Home Act, but requiring further justification for final award. Grants will be closely tied to statewide plans as required by the FY 2006 and FY 2007 State Homeland Security grant programs. Because statewide plans must take into account prior Tactical Interoperable Communications Plans (TICPs) and subsequent DHS interoperability scorecard recommendations, as discussed in the last issue of Public Safety IT, grants will be issued accordingly.

With such a short fuse on the PSIC Grant Program and its interconnection with other DHS interoperability initiatives, there are many important dates to keep straight. Provisional award amounts will be announced by mid-July of this year along with application procedures, grant guidance, and further eligibility requirements. Interested states and territories may apply immediately for the designated funding, but most will hold off a few months to build a PSIC investment justification into their statewide interoperability plan.

The Commerce / DHS MOU establishes that up to 5% of the grant program—almost $50 million—may be awarded to the states by Sept. 1 for purposes of addressing the goals of the PSIC Grant Program. In essence, this is planning money for building an investment justification and a good statewide communication interoperability plan. It is expected that states will take full advantage of this relatively unique opportunity to fund interoperability planning efforts.

Statewide plans are due along with a final investment justification by Nov. 1. Final awards will be based on how well interoperability needs in the state are addressed and how interoperability is provided with future public safety systems in the 700 MHz band.

Conclusion

Timeframes for the PSIC Grant Program are very compressed, and deadlines intertwined with other initiatives. States have known since issuance of FY 2006 State Homeland Security Grant guidance more than a year ago that statewide interoperability plans are required, but they have only recently been provided guidance on what the plans should contain. In addition, the MOU between the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security launching the program has effectively cut two months off the time available for doing plans: from Dec. 31, as announced in previous grant guidance to Nov. 1.

PSIC grant funding and the share available for statewide planning are additional incentives for states to complete comprehensive communication interoperability plans. It remains to be seen how much money each state and territory will be eligible for and whether their investment justifications pass the muster of peer review. But by the end of this year, much more federal money will be seeding interagency communications projects.

Dan M. Hawkins is director of public safety programs for SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, where he manages multiple technical assistance programs to public safety agencies nationwide funded by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. These programs provide assistance in automated systems development, planning and integration of justice information systems, and communications interoperability.


Published in Public Safety IT, Mar/Apr 2007

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