Lessons learned on emergency communication systems?

First responders still can’t talk to one another


September, 2006 Modesto Bee


By Mark Looker


With the anniversaries of Katrina and 9/11 at hand, we’re hearing a lot from politicians about “lessons learned” from those tragic events. One of those lessons is the inability of first responders to communicate with one another, which in government-speak translates to “interoperability”


VOICES of September 11th advocates for those affected by September 11th.  Responding to a Homeland Security survey of 183 U.S. mayors, Founding Director Mary Fetchet points out, “This new survey shows our local governments are still not getting the funding and guidance from the federal government to ensure full communications interoperability.” Only 20% of the mayors surveyed say their emergency communications are ready to do the job. A full 80%, from cities of all sizes, say their communications are not fully operable. When the mayors were asked, “How many years are you away from receiving full communications interoperability?” only 40% were able to hazard a guess—with responses averaging four years.


Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services Assistant Director Gary Hinshaw says good progress is being made towards the goal of interoperability for first responders but the job is not done yet.  The county began looking at the interoperability issue in 2000 and is utilizing local, county and Department of Homeland Security funds to realize the goal but much work remains.


The first phase of the county’s interoperable communications project was funded by $180,000 of local support and grant funding. That phase is 75% complete. Total funding need for the next two phases is estimated at over $1 million. Partial funding of $519,164 has been identified through Homeland Security grants.


“First you have to do the planning and then you have to fund the plan,” says Hinshaw. “We are well into the planning process and we are hopeful about getting the necessary funding to realize full interoperability.”  In the Fiscal year 2006 Homeland Security Grant Program, the local OES has requested $200,000 to fund an engineering study to design the future interoperable communications system. A delegation of county and city officials, including Supervisor Jeff Grover, Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour and Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden traveled to Washington DC earlier this year to lobby for the funding. The price tag to achieve full interoperability is likely in excess of $30 million, says Hinshaw.


In the interim, Hinshaw says there are temporary solutions such as stockpiling hand-held radios and possibly purchasing an expensive bridging device that allows the various emergency agencies to patch in their radios.


The frustration at the federal heel dragging continues. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission began auctioning off portions of the public radio spectrum to commercial interests such as EchoStar Communications and the DirecTV Group. It is anticipated that the auction will put an estimated $10 to $15 billion into the federal treasury.


And what portion of that radio spectrum has the federal government allocated for emergency communications five years after 9/11 and two years after the release of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations calling for such action?


Zero. None.


The tragedy of 9/11 continues to this day while local emergency personnel do the best they can to plan for the next disaster—man-made or natural—that is inevitable.


(Mark Looker is owner of Looker Communications Consulting, Modesto, and a visiting editor on the Modesto Bee’s Editorial Board.)