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Where do reforms urged by 9/11 commission stand?

Five years after the commission released its report, one key reform for US security – streamlining congressional oversight – hasn’t happened.

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First responders' ability to communicate with one another during an emergency - a top priority after the 9/11 attacks - is another area in which tangled congressional oversight has slowed progress.

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"The inability to communicate was a critical element at the World Trade Cen­ter, Pentagon, and Somerset County, Pen­­nsylvania, crash sites, where multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions responded," the 9/11 commission report concluded.

A New York Police Department helicopter pilot circling the World Trade Cen­ter on 9/11 warned that large pieces of the South Tower looked precarious, but his warning never got to firemen inside. Their radios couldn't communicate.

Spurred by billions in federal grants since 9/11, states and localities have made progress. About two-thirds of emergency-response agencies DHS surveyed in 2006 report using interoperable communications "at varying degrees."

On July 1, DHS announced the final phase of a three-part testing and evaluation process for the Multi-Band Radio project, which will enable emergency responders to talk with partner agencies regardless of the radio band on which they operate.

But the federal effort to achieve an integrated wireless network (IWN) fell apart last year. The bid to provide seamless communications among the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury faltered over disagreements on priorities, according to a Dec. 12, 2008, study by the US Government Accountability Office. The GAO recommends that Congress consider requiring the three departments to work together.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel, says the committee intends to address the IWN problem "later this Congress."

"We still have not gotten interoperability worked out - but is it better than it was? Yes," says former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, in a phone interview.

Some activists who helped establish the 9/11 commission say they're stunned at the difficulties in carrying out reforms they thought were already the law of the land.

"I thought that if it was legislated, it would be implemented," said Mary Fetchet, founding director of Voices of September 11, an activist group on 9/11 issues based in New Canaan, Conn.

After losing her son, who was on the 89th floor of the South Tower on 9/11, she helped pressure Congress to create an independent commission to investigate what went wrong and to ensure it didn't happen again.

"I certainly didn't want another person to perish in the way that my son did," she said in a recent phone interview. "But what I've found is that we had to continue to be involved, because legislation is just the first step."

Without effective congressional oversight and ongoing public pressure, key reforms may never be funded or implemented, she added. "Congress doesn't want to reform itself or streamline the process. There are far too many committees involved in issues that are unrelated to homeland security."

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