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Better Communications Needed In Emergency Response Network

Emergency responders testified before state lawmakers in Pittsburgh today about proposed changes to Title 35, which is a 34-year old state law covering emergency preparedness.

Pennsylvania’s Title 35 governs public health, safety and emergency response systems like the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).  It hasn’t undergone any significant changes since it’s enactment in 1978.   Many people in the business of emergency response think changes are long overdue because of more recent emergency situations like 9/11 and Hurricane Irene.  Legislators have held three hearings across the state on the new draft of Title 35 which has been five years in the making.

At the final hearing Wednesday at Heinz Field, local public safety officials provided insight, support, and additional suggestions to Title 35 with a regional focus.

PEMA director Glenn Cannon said interoperability and communication are key to a good emergency response framework.

“First responders go to work and in many cases they don’t come home at the end of the day and communications can make that difference between life and death,” Cannon said.  “That’s how critical interoperability is.”

Cannon said the emergency response in Pennsylvania should operate on “any brand, any band,” and added the issue isn’t technology,  it’s governance.

“If I would show you a map of Pennsylvania with the counties in it, with a different color for each frequency band that’s used, you would see four or five different colors across the commonwealth,” Cannon said.  “It looks like a rainbow of communication frequency for Pennsylvania.  You can’t have interoperability that way.”

Roy Shipley, Western Pennsylvania Keystone Emergency Management Association President, outlined five suggestions for the draft.  Shipley also stressed the importance of sharing information among emergency response networks.

“The proposed house bill addresses the collection, validation, and the prompt sharing of all hazard information by public entities,” Shipley said.  “This is a key element in the preparedness process to be able to share vital information in a timely manner with those who need it.”

Raymond DeMichiei, Deputy Director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security highlighted a main concern for Pittsburgh.  DeMichiei said the new draft classifies Pittsburgh as a municipality so it wouldn’t be recognized at the same level as the county government.

“While Pittsburgh has the third largest police force, the second largest career fire service, and the largest third service EMS agency, and by population is the 7th largest county in the commonwealth, the exsisting Title 35 and the rewrite classifies the city the same as a borough or township that may have hundreds to thousands of people.”

Other issues discussed included retaining and recruiting volunteer emergency personnel as well as worker’s compensation for first responders.