States Struggle to Expand Crisis Communications

 

Only 14 states have upgraded communications equipment enough to allow public safety agencies to talk to each other during a terrorist attack or other emergency situation, a federal study of state emergency communications capabilities released Wednesday (4/9) shows.

The 14 states that got high marks in the study are Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.

The remaining 36 states remain vulnerable during crises that require communication between police officers, fire fighters, paramedics and other emergency personnel, the state-by-state assessment found. The ability of diverse public safety agencies to communicate is called "interoperability."

"Without an infusion of federal dollars there won't be a jump start of these systems of interoperability. Most states are waiting for this to happen to develop these partnerships and secure the funding for the equipment," Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network said.

The National Interoperability Scorecard was released by the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN), a joint project of the Justice and Treasury Departments. It measured state interoperability improvements over the past two years.

Ninety-eight percent of public safety agencies rely on portable wireless radios to communicate. Establishing plans to allow first responders from dozens of jurisdictions and agencies to be able to exchange critical information efficiently has been a priority for states since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Developing a statewide wireless communication system is a major investment and has traditionally been a low priority in local and state governments. With states facing the their worst budget crisis in 50 years, few states can fund such projects.

Michigan alone spent $230 million in developing an interoperability system over the past seven years. The 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah brought an infusion of $310 million from the federal government to create a seamless communications network that processed 10 million calls during the three-week games.

Many states are taking smaller steps. Despite a $300 million deficit in Arizona this year, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) set aside $5 million to develop a communication network to connect the metropolitan corridor between Phoenix and Tucson.

"Most of the foundation has been laid and we've been working hard to educate our lawmakers to get these funds," Lt. Col. David Felix, asst. director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said.

Public safety and communication experts say it could take as long as 20 years to create a smooth, secure nationwide emergency communications network and could cost up to $18 billion, according to a PSWN estimate.

 
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