In Wake of Harvey, Irma & Devastating Wildfires, Cantwell Bill to Improve Phone, Internet, TV, Radio Service in Disaster Areas Passes Senate

SANDy Act would help disaster-struck communities quickly restore essential services

WA communities in wildfire country or tsunami danger areas would be directly affected

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bipartisan bill led by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to help communities quickly restore communications networks in emergencies passed out of the United States Senate by unanimous consent at the end of business yesterday.

The Securing Access to Networks in Disasters Act (SANDy Act) would lead to more of these communication services being repaired faster, and at less cost to states. Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, as well as the brutal fire season gripping the West, show how functional communication systems have proven vital for local authorities and relief organizations to coordinate rescue and relief efforts and for impacted communities to connect with the outside world.

“Phone service, broadband, and TV access are critical to saving lives and protecting property when disaster strikes. As extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes become more severe, communities across our country will rely more on these communications systems. The SANDy Act paves the way for communities to restore communications and respond more quickly, regardless of what Mother Nature throws at them,” said Senator Cantwell.

In Washington state, the legislation would help communities respond to disasters in the wildfire-prone central and western regions, as well as in coastal communities that are at increased risk for tsunamis and earthquakes.

The FCC reports more than half of cell sites in the Miami-Dade County, as well as five other counties in Florida, are currently out of operation in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Relief and rescue operations, as well as attempts by family members to contact one another, may be affected until service is restored.

Cantwell’s bill will now head to a conference committee between the House and Senate. Congressman Frank Pallone (NJ-6) introduced a companion bill in the House, which passed the House with bipartisan support earlier this year.

The SANDy Act was cosponsored by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), John Thune (R-SD), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

The SANDy Act would:

  • Give FEMA explicit authority to reimburse states for costs associated with supporting the restoration and repair of lifesaving communications services critical to first responders and affected communities.
  • Modernize and expand the list of service providers that can gain access to disaster sites in order to make repairs to their critical communications infrastructure to include: providers of Internet access, radio and television broadcasters, cable service providers and satellite TV providers.
  • Recognize and urge adherence to the voluntary framework the major wireless carriers entered into last month to share resources, work together to restore services more quickly and promote local government preparedness during emergencies.
  • Direct the Government Accountability Office to study the best ways to create and maintain a directory of key contact personnel for communications service providers to help speed up restoration of lost communication services in a given area.

Senator Cantwell has worked to ensure communities have the resources they need to address challenges before, during and after a disaster. In response to wildfires currently burning in the West, she recently urged Senate leadership to include a wildfire funding fix in future disaster aid passed through Congress. Earlier this year, Cantwell secured legislation directing the National Weather Service (NWS) to study areas of the country, including Central Washington, with inadequate Doppler weather radar coverage and develop a plan to improve that coverage.

Last year, Cantwell held roundtable discussions throughout Washington state to hear from local officials and stakeholders on the resources they need to prepare for, fight and recover from wildfires. In addition, Cantwell has met with community leaders and emergency officials on tsunami preparedness, and has passed legislation to strengthen tsunami warning systems and advance new research related to improving tsunami detection, forecasting, notification and response.