By James Duncan

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Local emergency responders spent four months and $5,000 to mitigate the environmental impacts of this communication tower by raising the equipment platform above the 100-year floodplain and not adding to the amount of infill within the floodplain. Photo: James Duncan

For almost a decade, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has funded efforts to coordinate local and regional emergency response. That goal came a step closer to realization in February, when a block of radio spectrum in the 700-megahertz frequency range, known as the D-Block, was opened to first responders.

As a result, police, fire, and public works departments and emergency management agencies are turning to advanced wireless networks to improve intra-agency communication in areas at high risk for natural disasters and threats of terrorism. However, Homeland Security Grant Program applicants must comply with all relevant federal legislation, including the National Environmental Policy Act. The law requires federal agencies to evaluate the consequences of a proposed project, such as developing and/ or improving a communication network, before funding it.

While protecting or enhancing the environment through well-informed decision-making is laudable, the required due diligence — called an environmental assessment — involves significant time and expense. Knowing what's involved in properly completing an application and anticipating and accounting for the timelines in your build schedule will help determine if a Homeland Security grant is a viable funding option.

Environmental assessments: what and why

The environmental assessment evaluates the potential consequences of both the project as well as construction alternatives on each of the following six resources:

  • Biological — endangered and threatened species
  • Coastal — barrier and coastal zones
  • Cultural and historic — archaeological and Native American properties
  • Physical — air quality
  • Socioeconomic — public health and safety, noise pollution, environmental justice
  • Water — floodplain and wetland quality.

Proper investigation usually requires in-depth research such as biological studies, stream evaluations, and historic structure eligibility surveys; consulting with and/or getting approval from state and federal agencies and Native American tribes; and informing the public via town meetings or published notices.

The funding agency (or agencies) uses this information to determine if the environment will be adversely affected or if further analysis is necessary, and:

  • When impacts are identified, request an environmental impact statement (EIS)
  • If impacts don't exist or can be mitigated, issue a finding of no significant impact (FONSI).