Opinion

What America can learn from Lancaster County

Photo of Rep. Joe Pitts
Rep. Joe Pitts
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      Rep. Joe Pitts

      Joe Pitts represents the 16th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, a diverse district stretching from the western Philadelphia suburbs further west into the Pennsylvania “Dutch” Country. Joe Pitts’ life and career have been wide-ranging as well: he has worked as a teacher, a small business owner, an Air Force officer, and a legislator. In addition to Pennsylvania, he has lived in Kentucky, the Philippines, and the various places the Air Force sent him.
      Joe brings this rich and varied background into his work as a legislator. The fact that he joined the Air Force because he couldn’t afford to raise his family on a teacher’s salary helps him understand the hardships many people are going through. His combat experience gives him an appreciation of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. His time as small business owner gives him a better understanding of how government policies can help or hurt job creation. His time living abroad gives him sensitivity and insight into how our nation is seen abroad and a strong desire to fight for human rights.

      Joe is an independent-minded conservative who knows that Republicans lost their moral authority during the last years of the Republican majority. He has a record of making up his own mind about legislation. He voted against one-third of his own party’s appropriations bills because they spent too much. He doesn’t do “earmarks.” He opposed President Bush’s signature legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, because it spent too much and did too many things that were best left to states and school districts. Once, on the floor of the House, he stared down then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Republic Whip Tom DeLay and successfully defeated a major bankruptcy reform bill because he found it discriminatory.

      Joe is a family-oriented conservative who believes strong families are the key to America’s prosperity. While others debate whether more or less regulation, this or that government program, or higher or lower taxes will make America stronger, Joe knows that the family is the fundamental building block of society. No amount of government spending can make a child succeed unless that child has the values and desire to succeed that only a strong family can instill.

      Joe is the son of an army officer who returned to the Philippines after World War II as a missionary. Joe spent much of his youth in Philippines, where some of his childhood friends had spent their earliest years in Japanese detention camps. He attended Asbury College in Kentucky, where he met his wife Ginny. Joe received a Master’s Degree in Education from West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

      Joe and Ginny taught school in Kentucky until the birth of their first child. Not long after, Joe volunteered for the Air Force, serving from 1963 to 1969. He rose to the rank of Captain and flew 116 combat missions on B-52s during Vietnam. He was a navigator and electronic warfare officer. It was that experience that led him to found the Electronic Warfare Working Group in Congress, advocating for critical technological investments that are currently saving lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

      After leaving the Air Force, Joe returned to teaching math and science at Great Valley High School in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

      At the urging of his friends, Joe unexpectedly ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1972 and won. His candidacy was part of a reform movement within the Chester County Republican Party known as the “Independents.” His victory sent a powerful message that from then on democracy, not machine politics, was going to rule in Chester County.

      Joe served for 24 years in Harrisburg, eventually chairing the House Appropriations Committee—a position he attained specifically because of his reputation for ethics and fair dealing. In that position, he worked with governors and colleagues in both parties to balance eight state budgets in a row, even during the recession of 1990-1991—without a federal bailout.

      In 1996 Joe was elected to Congress after winning a five-way primary election and a well-funded Democrat in the general election. Before his appointment to the important Energy and Commerce Committee, Joe served on the House Budget Committee, the International Relations Committee (now known as the Foreign Affairs Committee), the Small Business Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

      As a member of the Budget Committee, he co-wrote the only four balanced budgets enacted into law since the Lyndon Johnson Administration. Each of those budgets, negotiated with President Clinton, actually paid off some of the government’s debt.

      Joe is now a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most powerful committees in Congress. He serves on the Health Subcommittee, the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, and the Commerce Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

      Joe is an advocate for fiscal responsibility, refusing to request earmarks and voting against Democratic and Republican legislation if he feels it is irresponsibly expensive.

      Joe is an advocate for truly bipartisan health reform, working with New York Democrat Nydia Velazquez, chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, to introduce the Small Business CHOICE Act, which would make it easier for small businesses to offer health insurance for their employees.

      Joe is an advocate for conservation, the environment, and clean energy. He convinced Congress to protect the White Clay Creek and the historically important open space surrounding the Brandywine Battlefield in Chester County. He introduced the SAFE Nuclear Act to help transition away from fossil fuels. He co-chairs the Conservation Caucus in the House.

      Two other important caucuses he chairs are the Values Action Team and the Electronic Warfare Working Group. The Values Action Team advocates for pro-family legislation in the House, while the Electronic Warfare Working Group helps preserve America’s technological edge when it comes to military technology and the electromagnetic spectrum.

      Joe is also an active member in the Republican Study Committee (the conservative caucus in the House) and the bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus. He sits on the Helsinki Commission, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China; these commissions provide him with a forum from which to advocate for human rights internationally.

      At home, Joe is a member of the Brandywine Valley Association, the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company, his local Rotary Club, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

      Among the many award and honors he has received are the Guardian of Small Business Award from the National Federal of Independent Business, The Taxpayer Hero Award from Citizens Against Government Waste, the Hero of the Taxpayer Award from Americans for Tax Reform, and the William Wilberforce Award from Prison Fellowship Ministries. He received special recognition from the North Korea Freedom Coalition for his role in passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act, and from the Brandywine Conservancy for his leadership in Congressional efforts to aid in conservation of open space.

      Joe and Ginny have three grown children and four grandchildren.

When you watch television dramas about police officers or firefighters, you see first responders effortlessly using their radios to communicate with each other. In reality, radios aren’t perfectly reliable.

In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, first responders use a decades-old VHF emergency radio system. This limited system can become overcrowded if too many people are trying to use the radio at the same time. There are places where these radios just don’t work. And firefighters, police officers and ambulance crews can’t directly talk to each other. They have to rely on relayed messages that take more time.

For years, Lancaster County has tried to replace this system with one similar to what the Pennsylvania State Police use. However, this was both expensive and had problems of its own.

What Lancaster County needed was a T-band system. T-band radio systems use a frequency in the same range as television. In the county, the frequency needed for the T-band radios was already claimed by WGAL, the local NBC TV affiliate.

WGAL intended to use this new spectrum to expand its coverage to television channel 15. However, when WGAL executives heard that the county’s best option for a new radio system required this channel, they offered to swap their spectrum.

Paul Quinn, president and general manager at WGAL, spoke about this decision: “When we did the research and realized that was one of the only options that the county had — and we had other less-desirable options — we were glad to do this.”

You may already know that the federal government owns radio spectrum in the United States and allocates frequencies through the Federal Communications Commission. The T-band is not typically used for public safety communications. While the county and WGAL agreed that channel 15 should be used for first responder radios, they still needed a waiver from the FCC.

For three years, the county tried to get this waiver. Despite the need for a new system, the FCC was moving slowly. When the commissioners contacted me about this need, I immediately began pressing for the FCC to issue a decision.

Finally, on February 9 the FCC approved the waiver for Lancaster County. This week, at a press conference at the Lancaster County Training Center, everyone who helped make the waiver possible came together for a press conference.

This was a cooperative effort between local first responders, elected officials, and WGAL. We were able to come together in the public interest to provide a new tool for those in Lancaster County who work to keep us safe.

While no system is perfect, the new T-band radios will be a dramatic improvement over the current system. Over 5,400 personnel will be able to use a system that spans 100 bands. This allows for great flexibility in how first responders communicate.

The new radios should be able to get a signal in areas where the old radios wouldn’t work. When firefighters and police officers go into basements and ravines, they will still be able to maintain a line of communication.

No system is perfect and there are still other issues that need to be resolved. The county will still need to buy the equipment, but the costs for this new system will be dramatically less than previous estimates. During this time of tight budgets, this means a safer community without new taxes that would hold back growth.

While I believe in a smaller, more efficient government, we have a great responsibility to keep citizens safe and provide aid in time of emergency. This week, we saw what is possible when the private sector and elected officials work together in the public interest.

Rep. Joe Pitts represents Pennsylvania’s Sixteenth Congressional District.

  • zelda

    So you’re saying that a 3 year wait to get an FCC waiver from the federal government for equipment desperately needed by first responders is “what is possible when the private sector and elected officials work together in the public interest?”

    This example inspires absolutely no confidence in government at all.