When severe tornadoes ripped through Story County, Iowa, three years ago, first responders from around the country rushed to help.
But once there, they weren't sure what to do.
Out-of-state responders didn't use the same radio frequencies as local emergency workers, so the different agencies had no way to talk to each other, Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald recalled.
Communications became so snarled the agencies relied on runners to relay information from city to city.
"Everyone had radio in our cars, but there was no interoperability," Fitzgerald said.
A bill pending in the Senate aims to eliminate that problem. The proposal would give emergency personnel access to 10 megahertz of "D block" frequencies.
That would double the number of frequencies the Federal Communications Commission reserves for public safety officials, giving those officials a nationwide communications network.
"That would create one single 20 MHz block," said Fitzgerald, who is also first vice president of the National Sheriffs Association.
He said using D-block frequencies also would allow agencies to save money by letting them keep their current equipment.
The bill, Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, is sponsored by Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia and co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Rockefeller wants to have the bill signed into law by September, in time for the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Emergency workers responding to the attacks experienced communications problems similar to the ones Fitzgerald described in Iowa. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended creating an interoperable communications system to solve those problems.
"This bill would address these hurdles and make it easier for us to respond in the event of mine disasters, flooding emergencies, and other crises our citizens face," Rockefeller said in a statement.
His bill passed the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on June 8. Republican Rep. Peter King of New York has introduced a House version.
Don Dixon, police chief in Lake Charles, La., said a national network for public safety officials is crucial. He recalled that when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita crippled communications across the state in 2005, emergency departments in other cities had to piggyback on the Lake Charles system, which stayed up.
"It's preparing for the future," Dixon said of a national network. "Communication is essential, for sure."
Fitzgerald said an extra 10 megahertz would move first responders closer to being able to receive photos and videos that might, for example, be sent via cellphone by people pinned down inside a building during a school shooting incident.
But he added, "This is America's investment in America. How can first responders be expected to save your life or your family's life if we can't protect ourselves?"