Federal Agency Roles and Responsibilities for Emergency Communications Need Clarification

Gao ID: LCD-80-91 August 8, 1980

GAO reviewed the June 1979 report of the Interagency Committee on Search and Rescue which proposed a national Emergency Response Communications Program to determine the Federal agencies' and offices' responsibilities for emergency communications and determine plans for following up on the report findings. The Committee envisioned a satellite system which would provide voice, data, and video coverage to mobile and fixed station users in all 50 States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Because the satellite system envisioned is beyond state-of-the-art technology, it will require substantial research and development effort.

The report is not a reliable basis for decisionmaking because the Committee did not establish the need for the program, examine alternatives, or adequately consider the program's cost and funding. In developing the program, the Committee did not follow the Office of Management and Budget guidelines intended to ensure that system development will not begin until a need has been verified. Because the Committee assumed the need existed and the system should be developed to meet the need, the Committee failed to examine alternative systems. A number of potential users advised the Committee that they could not fund the program. As a result, the Committee chose to omit a discussion of the cost, even though the program is expected to cost as much as $1 billion. The Committee believes the Government should fund the research and development, first launch, and testing of the system, and the users would pay to operate and maintain the system when operational. This is not consistent with Presidential directives which look to private industry rather than the Government to provide the needed services. The same services are already provided by the Dispersed Users Satellite Program, and two other efforts have been initiated to improve emergency communications. These activities are duplicative and inconsistent. Confusion of Federal agencies' responsibilities for emergency communications have existed since the Office of Telecommunications Policy was abolished. A clear understanding of the lines of authority and responsibility for telecommunications at all levels of Government is needed.


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