By Jonathan Schultz

When America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, the response of first responders became a compelling focus of the day’s events. First responders rushed into buildings with no regard for their personal safety. This dedication to duty resulted in the deaths of hundreds of our brother and sister first responders.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, it was revealed that many of these deaths might have been avoided. Radios used by the different response agencies were unable to communicate with each other. When it was realized that the buildings were in danger of collapse, many recall messages went unheard. Those of us in the brotherhood and sisterhood of first responders still mourn and honor these fallen heroes.

In the wake of 9/11 and the shortcomings of emergency communications statewide, New York State sought to upgrade this system at the local and state levels by imposing a monthly surcharge on cellphone bills. This fee of $1.20 per month was supposed to be dedicated to modernizing emergency communications at the state and local levels.

Unfortunately, the reality has not lived up to the justification of this new tax. Despite collecting more than $220 million last year from this surcharge, New York State has shared very little for emergency communication system upgrades. Although there has been a slight increase in sharing under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in most years only about 6 percent has been slated for updating or upgrading county communication systems, with the rest remaining in state coffers.

I do not dispute the legitimate need state first response agencies have in upgrading their communications network. But when an emergency strikes, natural or man-made, the first people and agencies on the scene will be the local first responders, not state or federal. The need for strong local emergency communications is simply indisputable.

Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, has introduced a bill in the Senate that would increase sharing with local governments to 58.3 percent of the total revenue raised by the surcharge to update or upgrade countywide communication systems. The bill passed the Senate, but the companion bill stalled in the Assembly. It is critical that our Western New York Assembly members support this effort.

New York’s first responders may be on the verge of having the funds necessary to upgrade communications equipment and links that are needed in critical life-and-death emergencies. Let us hope our legislators back up their strong verbal support for first responders by actually passing the necessary legislation.

Jonathan Schultz is director of emergency services and fire coordinator for Niagara County and has served as a volunteer firefighter for 20 years.