interoperable communication systems is a headache.
Law enforcement agencies, which typically have systems and resources in place, have a reputation for being shy about sharing communications with other agencies. Part of that stems from law enforcement wanting to protect its communications, sometimes for privacy reasons. Part of difficulty also can be attributed to good old-fashioned turf warfare. "No matter what type of money or technology you throw at anybody, if they dont want to talk, theyre not going to," said Rick Murphy, program manager of PSWN.
States are learning that building a system and then requiring agencies to participate is like telling your neighbor to mow your lawn. "Governance is a huge issue," said David Roberts, deputy director of the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. "It is getting the right people to the table; its getting them focused; its getting them past turf barriers and personal barriers that agency directors may have with one another. And it is really trying to get people to understand that integration doesnt mean that youre allowing unfettered access."
Safety in Michigan
Michigan decided to proceed with a new system administered by the state police with input from a state advisory board. The 15-member advisory board includes police, fire and EMS personnel, as well as sheriffs and various townships and county associations.
"What weve tried to do is take the approach that people need to make their own decisions, and if the systems good enough, theyll come to it," said State Police Capt. Thomas Miller, the systems project manager.
This approach has grabbed the attention of Michigans agencies, which have bought in to the tune of 8,500 radios. About two-thirds of the state now boasts interoperable communications among agencies.
The Michigan system consists of four tiers or four different levels of talk groups. The first tier is the proprietary level, where an individual agency "owns" its own communications system. This system operates within agency boundaries, but can be programmed to include other agencies or jurisdictions in an emergency. The second and third tiers are for county and statewide talk groups, respectively. The fourth tier includes special-event talk groups, which lie dormant until needed. All tiers have statewide talk groups built in. Murphy noted that with the level of encryption available today, state agencies can share a system but protect private information as well.
"Whats nice about our system is its operating and you can actually test it. Its not like youre buying into an unknown," Miller said. "Not everybody is in the same predicament from a communications standpoint. You have people who have very old systems that need to be replaced immediately, and you have some who have made investments in new technology. As people begin to look at changing their systems, were an option they can go to."
The system provides the backbone, but its left up to the individual counties and agencies to get together and decide how to use it and to help pay for it. Because the backbone of the system is already in place, counties can save money by joining. Murphy said it costs counties $2 million to $3 million to jump onto the existing system rather than the $5 million to $6 million it would cost to build their own.
Its in the Money
Still, funding is a huge hurdle for most jurisdictions, and most states need to find alternatives to asking the legislature for a huge chunk of change. Michigan charges a per-radio user fee for everyone who participates. Most of that money goes for system administration and maintenance, but some is thrown into a pot for equipment replacement when the need arises.
Some states place user fees on such things as 911 services and vehicle and boat licenses, depending on what local legislation allows. Others