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Remarks to Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Annual Conference, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Monday, August 20, 2012

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks to Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Annual Conference, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Thank you, Greg (Riddle). It’s great to be here with APCO and many of our country’s top leaders in public-safety communications.

And I’d like to recognize and thank the first responders and public safety workers who are with us today, along with all of your colleagues throughout the nation. On behalf of the Obama administration, we are grateful for all that you do to keep our nation safe and secure.

It’s great to be back in the Twin Cities. I went to high school and college here, graduating from the University of Minnesota, home of the Golden Gophers. The Gophers certainly made America proud over the last few weeks with five athletes from the University of Minnesota competing in the Olympics.  And, I want to point out that all five of these all-stars were women.

Now, America has always been a nation of competitors. It’s in our DNA to go for the gold. And it’s not just our athletes. Resilience and hard work is the American way—for our businesses, our workers, and our public servants.

And sometimes that means fighting our way back—which is what the Obama Administration is focused on as we continue to recover from the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

Back in 2008, our economy was in free fall. The damage inflicted by the financial meltdown was enormous. By the end of that year, about 750,000 Americans were losing their jobs every month.

President Obama knew we had to get back on track. That’s why, less than a month into office, he signed the Recovery Act. As you might remember, it had three parts.

  • A third of it was tax cuts, designed to give families more money in the short run.
  • Another third went to infrastructure—including the largest investment in our roads since the Interstate Highway System.
  • And a third went to help state governments—including funds to keep and hire firefighters and police officers. That included some right here at the Minneapolis Police Department.

And because of the actions that President Obama took, such as putting together the Recovery Act and rescuing the American auto industry from collapse, and because of the entrepreneurship and fighting spirit of our businesses and workers, we have added back 4.5 million jobs over the past 29 months. 

Here in Minnesota, unemployment has dropped from a high of 8.3 percent to 5.8 percent last month. Still, no one doubts that we have much more work to do before the economy is back to the levels of growth and activity that we all want to see. That’s why the president continues to call on Congress to pass some important proposals that our economy needs to move back to full health.

  • This includes $35 billion to help state and local governments—which are still struggling—to keep police officers, firefighters, and teachers on the job.
  • It also includes funding to put more construction workers back on the job to repair our crumbling infrastructure.

According to independent economists, these two proposals would create a million new jobs. And I believe that government has a duty to provide these public benefits—these public goods, if you will—for our citizens.

Make no mistake. The most basic obligation that we have is to keep our citizens safe—whether they’re at home, at work, at school, or—as we’ve been reminded more recently through the heroes in local businesses and in places of worship.

The president and all of us throughout the administration are working every day to ensure that people like you can continue to protect and save lives.

That’s who you are.  That’s what you do.

But we can’t stop there. There’s more that we need to do to ensure the prosperity of our communities.

That’s why the president is calling on Congress to extend the middle-class tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year. This would help 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses. Unless we extend this tax cut through 2013, a typical middle class family of four would see its taxes rise by over $2,000. 

Both of these things—funding for state and local public safety workers, teachers and infrastructure jobs and the extension of middle class tax cuts—we can and should do right now. There’s no time to waste.

But  we need to make longer-term investments, too—which brings me to today’s announcement.

After 9/11 and Katrina, it became clear to everyone that our public safety communications systems were entirely too fragmented across the local, state and federal levels.

This was and is a problem. This creates both more risk and higher costs. Our first responders deserve better.

That’s why in his State of the Union address last year, President Obama called on Congress to create a nationwide, secure, and interoperable broadband network to help the millions of first responders and public safety workers across our country.

As the president said, this could help a firefighter download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device. It could also help police officers see crimes that are happening in real time.

  • It could help emergency medical workers see patient medical records or send images while they’re in a moving ambulance.
  • It could even help security search for individuals in a big crowd.

The bottom line is that we need to keep our front-line responders as safe as possible while giving them the best possible communications tools to do their job and save lives. Thanks to an unprecedented coalition of public safety entities and the support and leadership of organizations like APCO, we’re moving forward on this project.

Congress approved the creation of the FirstNet interoperable network as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. The design and establishment of this network will be funded with $7 billion from spectrum auctions. The president signed this into law 6 months ago.

And today—flowing out of that law—I have an important announcement to make.

  • My team at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has been hard at work. By the way, the Administrator of NTIA is with us today, Larry Stricking.  Larry has been leading the effort to set up the FirstNet project, along with his deputy, Anna Gomez, who is also here.

Over the past few months, NTIA has been focused on identifying the strongest possible slate of candidates for service on the Board of the First Responder Network Authority, also known as FirstNet.

  • The law created FirstNet as an independent authority within NTIA.
  • And the FirstNet Board will be responsible for designing, developing, operating and maintaining the long overdue nationwide public safety broadband network.

As you know, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of OMB have permanent seats on the Board. The other 12 people weren’t easy to choose, especially given the wealth of worthy candidates who were recommended to us.

It was also a jigsaw puzzle given the requirements that the FirstNet Board reflect a broad array of backgrounds, ranging from. . .

  • people with first-hand experience as public safety professionals. . .
  • to experts in areas such as networks, technology and finance. . .
  • to people representing the collective interests of states and localities, and from both urban and rural areas. . . and more.

All of you helped to provide us with more than 100 impressive nominations to help us find just the right mix. The Board will have a big responsibility, which includes:

  • developing an overarching plan and policies for this new network;
  • overseeing contracts;
  • ensuring long-term financial sustainability of the network;
  • reaching into underserved areas;
  • and, most important, making sure that FirstNet meets its mission of leveraging new technologies to help first responders improve response times, improve safety, and ultimately save lives.  

I authorized the full list of board members last week. So without further ado, here are the people who will compose the initial FirstNet Board.

First, the public safety community has excellent representation from:

  • Chief “Chuck” Dowd from the New York City Police Department, who is here today;
  • Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald from Story County, Iowa, who is also here today;
  • Jeffrey Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association,and 
  • Kevin McGinnis, Chief of North East Mobile Health Service.

They know the importance of meeting local public safety needs as this network is designed.

I am also proud to announce as board members:

  • Teri Takai, who served as the CIO for the states of Michigan and California -- and as past President of the National Association of State CIOs -- prior to her current post at the Defense Department; and,
  • Wellington Webb, the former mayor of Denver, Colorado.

They, together with the public safety members, bring valuable experience from serving at the state and local level and will appreciate the importance of working very closely with governors, mayors, tribal leaders and other officials from Day One. And I’m pleased to announce that the board will have a team of experts in wireless broadband communications:

  • Tim Bryan, CEO of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative; and renowned wireless industry veterans: 
  • F. Craig Farrill
  • William Keever
  • Ed Reynolds Susan Swenson, and
  • Sam Ginn.

I’ve appointed Sam Ginn as the Chairman of the FirstNet Board. He brings four decades of experience in senior operations and management positions and has been a pioneer in the wireless industry.

Congratulations to all of you. I am proud of the high quality of those who we are appointing to this Board and am confident that they will do an excellent job.

This is truly an exciting moment. We will be building a nationwide public safety communications network that is worthy of the women and men who responded on 9/11 . . . and that is worthy of the women and men who put themselves in harm’s way each and every day.

This project will bring the biggest infusion of innovation into this system in decades. It is a huge undertaking. And it is a call to action for all of us.

  • From leaders in all levels of government,
  • To the private sector, which I know is represented in full force here today,
  • To local organizations and community groups, and 
  • Many other stakeholders.

From now on, our dialogue must be robust and sustained and our actions must be—to borrow a term from the Olympics—synchronized.

If we get this right, I’m confident that we will bring home the Gold for our first responders and our communities as a whole. So I have only one ending thought for our new Board members, and for everybody who will be engaged in this effort: Let’s get to work.  This is a much-needed and long-overdue project whose completion can make your jobs easier and all of our citizens safer.

Thank you.