When a severe snowstorm battered the northern half of Indiana in March 1998, incompatible radio systems rendered law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) only slightly more empowered than citizens stranded on the roads in a lightening storm. In another incident, communication shortcomings forced the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the National Guard to shout to one another across rain-swollen Indiana rivers in attempts to fish people out of them.

With alarming regularity, tragic events have uncovered the need for integrated public safety systems that allow fire and EMS departments to communicate and coordinate with one another during emergencies. When police from eight agencies and two Indiana counties converged to hunt down a gunman who had killed one and wounded several others during a bank robbery, the effort turned frantic because officers couldnt communicate. In the highly publicized Columbine High School shooting in Colorado that left 15 dead, law enforcement officers resorted to hand signals when creating a perimeter around the school because cops from different jurisdictions used different radio systems.

In each of these incidents, frustrated police, fire and EMS crews couldnt communicate across agency lines because of incompatible radio systems.

Indiana and Colorado, awakened by disasters that could have been managed more effectively, have taken steps toward a solution. But when it comes to implementing full-blown, interoperable communications systems, the nation as a whole is still very much asleep. According to an index by the Public Safety Wireless Network Program (PSWN), only Michigan and Delaware are described as having "mature" integrated public safety systems. The rest are still trying to wake up.

Giving It a Go

Most states are in various stages of implementing interoperable systems. But because of the high number of variables involved in these projects -- locating funds, collaborating with other agencies, acquiring spectrum, finding the right technology and assuring security -- most states are being tripped up.

Indiana was well on its way to implementing an interoperable public safety system by getting police, fire and EMS agencies to agree on how to build a system, which typically is one of the most difficult issues facing jurisdictions. The state created an Integrated Public Safety Commission (IPSC), which set up demonstration projects between groups or "consortiums" of counties. The goal was to stir up interest and prove to local leaders, city council members, mayors and legislators that the concept could work and that the project deserved precious funds.

Ultimately, however, the effort was unsuccessful.

"It did create a lot of interest and agreement but it failed in getting the monies," said Melvin Carraway, superintendent of the Indiana State Police and chair of IPSC. "Indiana is going through an economic downturn and a lot of those monies are going to other services rather than our communications system."

Indiana will go back to the Legislature to try again and will seek alternative funding. "Were trying our best to economize those dollars, put them in places where we know we can really start the backbone of a statewide communications system," Carraway said. "I think were going to get there. Our legislators believe in the project; they understand how important it is. But just like everything else, there are other priorities."

States Impediments

Modern public safety communication systems are needed everywhere. Reports indicate that nearly a third of public safety agencies, including fire, police and EMS, have had difficulty responding to emergencies because of a lack of radio interoperability. EMS departments have had it the worst, with more than 50 percent indicating that a lack of interoperability has hampered response time.

The problems include antiquated systems and the fact that different agencies, counties and jurisdictions have different communication systems. Finding funds is a challenge, and getting different agencies and jurisdictions to collaborate on creating modern,

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor