The Alaska Land Mobile Radio (ALMR) project, a $151 million public safety radio effort, is an endeavor involving federal, state and local governments, as well as the military. "It's an effort to build an interoperable emergency communication system that agencies can use for normal day-to-day stuff, that will be totally secure and independent of the other participants in the system," said state Chief Technology Officer Larry Walsh. "But in the event of an emergency or a joint response, their radios can be used to talk to each other. It is a digital pack IP base that uses all the new two-way capabilities that old stovepipe systems couldn't."

At least 17 state agencies and entities are involved in the ALMR project along with the Alaska Municipal League, consisting of 29 cities and eight federal agencies. An executive council with a representative from each of the stakeholder groups has oversight and management authority of the project, which will be rolled out in four phases. The final phase, slated for completion in 2006, will bring mobile services to more than 50 sites in the state's remote areas and major cities.

The initial phase is a demonstration project that will test functionality in a number of sites, including air to ground and maritime connectivity and interoperability for airport systems and public safety responders. According to Julie Stinson, project manager, Alaska was ahead of the curve when it came to emergency communications. "The executive council did understand the need for interoperability. It wasn't just 9-11, it was before then," she said. "There were major incidents in Alaska and the number one lesson learned was that communications failed."

Alaska is subject to a variety of natural disasters. The 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake had a magnitude of 9.2 and caused a tsunami to inundate towns along the Gulf of Alaska. The event was one of the most violent quakes in recorded history. The 1996 Adak earthquake registered a magnitude of 7.9 and was centered beneath the Aleutian Islands -- also producing a tsunami. This region is one of the earth's most active seismic zones. In addition, the state is home to many active volcanoes and often suffers severe winter weather. Manmade disasters, such as oil spills and wildfires also tax the region's emergency response capabilities. Added to that somewhat daunting list of threats is today's heightened security atmosphere. As a strategic military site, the state has a key role in homeland defense.

Walsh said emergency responders have plenty of experience -- some of it very frustrating. "Many times state and local responders and military will be on the same incident and have a difficult time communicating," he said. "It's what a lot of public safety folks are struggling with today. You read about the World Trade Center or Columbine and that's the challenge."

State officials were aware of the need for improved communication systems, and a 1997 report outlined a proposal for statewide and intergovernmental interoperability. In 2002, ALMR was launched to address the state's unique needs for multiple communication channels. "Moving forward we are putting in the infrastructure in the hope that all the other agencies will come in," Stinson said. "It is not mandatory, but we want them to come on their own."

The project will move forward in four phases, each implementation depending, in part, on funding. According to Stinson, it helps to have the Department of Defense as a partner because the agency budgets in five-year cycles. State and local governments are less predictable and somewhat subject to the whims of politics. Phase one is a "concept demonstration project" involving five sites. The aim, according to Stinson, is to gain the support of elected officials, the public and the user-base. "We want buy-in that shows the project is feasible and we want to have everyone understand the equipment, the benefits and the costs," she explained.

The second phase will require the development of a business model that includes joint procurement -- an activity Stinson says is critical. Effective governance, she adds, is fundamental to the overall success of the ALMR project. Eventually, there will be a "joint federal-state-local checkbook" and a standards-based approach that avoids the duplicated costs and incompatible technologies of the past.

As with most IT projects, the technology is not daunting. "Procedural and administrative issues are the biggest challenge," Stinson said.

Walsh agrees. "It takes an enterprise approach. Communication requires a real infrastructure," he said. "And the state has to be able to share that infrastructure instead of building ineffective stovepipes."

Darby Patterson  |  Editor in Chief