Reconciling the Differences

States need to overcome antiquated systems to save lives in the event of an emergency.

by / October 1, 2001
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, 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 float bonds or assess property taxes to pay for the initial investment in a system, then find other ways to finance the ongoing costs. "Usually the money is available," Murphy said.

But finding that money may mean doing business differently, according to Roberts. "Typically what happens is everybody goes in and everybody is fighting for their IT dollar," he said. "For these efforts to work, youve got to have a key stakeholder who has an investment in the outcome. Youve got to have strong leadership and it cannot be from the ground up."

States are finding that collaboration is key to implementing integrated communication systems that save lives and money. "[Agencies] are finding out that theyve got to be willing to share with others so they can share the burden of not only the operation and maintenance of the system, but also the initial purchase," Murphy said.

In Indiana, officials will return to the Legislature to seek funding and also explore other options, such as federal money and private-sector help.

"Were trying to move forward with the funding that were able to get," Carraway said. "Weve had individual troopers and citizens lives at stake because of the inability to communicate. Thank God there has not been a loss of life. Public safety really needs to have action taken. It hurts me to say this, [but] we have to have those disasters occur before it seems to wake people up to understand that this has to be done and funded appropriately."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor