Congress’s AM radio stance proves it's in tune with public safety 

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Last month, members of the House Commerce Committee — led by committee leaders Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Innovation, Data and Commerce Subcommittee leaders Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)  — held a hearing on the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act. 

This bill, introduced by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), will ensure that every manufacturer in the United States keeps AM radios in their cars — allowing law enforcement, emergency management professionals and Americans in danger to have continued access to one of the nation’s most reliable and effective public safety tools.

At the hearing, Bilirakis said, “There is a distinct importance of having a robust, widely accessible communications infrastructure to alert Americans and ensure public safety in the event of emergencies and natural disasters.” 

He is correct. That is why the federal government created the national public warning system, which relies heavily on the geographical reach and resiliency of AM radio stations. These stations are such an integral part of our warning systems that the federal government has spent significant dollars hardening them to safeguard their signals from interruptions. 

Their funding and care have ensured that, even during the worst crises, officials can provide life-saving information to the public when demand spikes and bad weather topple cell phone and internet signals. 

Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), Pallone, and Rodgers cited the recent examples of the February nationwide cellphone outages, the Midwest’s late April tornadoes and Hurricane Ida as examples of times when AM radio has stood as the only medium the public could access to remain informed. 

As a former lieutenant in the New York City Police Department, I will also never forget how vital AM radio was to our emergency response efforts on Sept. 11, 2001, when the cellphone grid remained overwhelmed and unreliable. Without AM radio, my colleagues and I would not have been able to perform our jobs nearly as effectively as we did on that fateful day and the days after it.

The same held true during Hurricane Sandy when more than 1 million people in the New York region listened to AM radio during any 15-minute period — a 70-percent increase from what was typical at the time. AM radio connected impacted residents with the disaster response managers and emergency supply officers they needed to remain safe and protected.

Given AM radio’s importance during times of crises, it should not surprise anyone that Castor reported at the hearing that seven former FEMA directors spanning the Clinton through Trump administrations wrote a letter to the committee, in which it urged its members to call a vote on the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act before hurricane season begins in June.

“FEMA has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in creating and bolstering the National Public Warning System to communicate with the public during times of crisis,” they wrote. “It is powered principally by AM radio because it is the only communication system with the reach and resiliency to ensure that elected leaders and public safety officials can communicate with the public under the worst conditions.”

For all these reasons, in 2016, Congress passed — and the president signed into law — the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act to protect the National Public Warning System. So, it is fitting that Congress is again coming together to prevent automakers (which the federal government continues to subsidize heavily) from undercutting this public safety imperative today.

On the same day as the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act hearing, Cruz and Markey announced that the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act crossed the important milestone of amassing 60 co-sponsors in the Senate. 

This filibuster-proof majority will ensure that the legislation will pass once Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) calls it up for a vote. The bill will fare just as well when Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) does the same in the House because the bill already has most of its members signed onto the effort.

While it is rare to see Congress work in such a bipartisan fashion, this effort proves that the legislative branch can set aside its partisan differences to keep its constituents safe. The safety of the American people knows no party affiliation, and that truism should comfort us all and give us optimism for the future.

Darrin Porcher, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor at Pace University in New York City, where he teaches and researches issues related to criminal justice and law enforcement. 

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