A lone police officer in Vancouver, Wash., detained a shooting suspect at a local park and radioed for backup. But the police channels were jammed with radio traffic, and the officer's call never arrived. Luckily, another officer heard the location before the arresting officer went off the air, and arrived to provide backup.

This incident last year prompted Vancouver City Councilmember Pat Jollota, a former dispatcher, to createa solution to the crowded public safety channels in her community. But it was costly.

The city's stopgap measure was to borrow $2 million from a water and sewer fund to purchase some new communications equipment and to bounce signals off a repeater in nearby Portland, Ore., in a less-crowded frequency range.

This anecdote illustrates a common problem faced by public safety communications. As more public safety vehicles -- outfitted with more communications equipment -- are put on the street , the narrow bands used by police cars, ambulances and fire engines are becoming crowded, especially in urban areas.

When this happens, a local government can try to get more frequencies assigned by the federal government. But this is becoming more difficult as cellular telephones, beepers and other civilian communications applications take over the airways.

Public safety should have a particular part of the spectrum set aside for use by ambulances, police and fire departments, assert local government and public safety advocates. Without this allocation, it could become more difficult for local public safety agencies to acquire radio frequencies and establish interoperability between agencies. It could also hinder effective use of emerging applications, such as sending archived mug shots or fingerprints to a patrol car.

BRIEFING ON SPECTRUM

Spectrum is the finite space that contains all radio, television and microwave frequencies. Different types of signals are allocated certain parts of the spectrum, with television using a different allocation than beepers, for example. The FCC assigns frequencies within these allocations, and equipment is manufactured to work within the assigned areas of the spectrum.

The FM radio station you listen to (unless it's a "pirate" station) has an FCC license to broadcast at a given power using a particular frequency within the FM radio allocation.

Telecommunications providers used to be assigned frequency by the FCC. But that changed with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which authorized the FCC to use competitive bidding to award licenses in some areas of the spectrum, with the proceeds earmarked for deficit reduction. By early this year, more than $9 billion had been raised through auctions from hundreds of new licenses for new wireless services.

The problem is that public safety agencies, which have generally not had much space allocated over the years, do not have the financial resources to compete in auctions against the private sector.

As radio sections of the spectrum become more crowded, especially in urban areas, there is concern that too much space could be auctioned off, leaving public safety without sufficient room both now and in the future.

SPECTRUM RECOMMENDATIONS

When Congress voted in 1993 to allow spectrum auctions, it ordered a report with recommendations on spectrum allocations for public safety use. The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) was then formed, under the auspices of the FCC and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to study and make recommendations on what public safety's spectrum needs could be between now and 2010.

PSWAC has been working for about a year, and participants have included the FBI director, a New York City deputy police commissioner, representatives from the military and the private sector. The commission's report and recommendations, which took a year to develop, were scheduled to be released in September and should be on the Internet at or available from the FCC.