09/06/2007

Lessons learned: N.J. county to link emergency personnel

Plans to buy computer program to tie together radio frequencies
 
By DIANE C. WALSH
Newark Star-Ledger
 
NEWARK, N.J. — All of the radio frequencies used by Middlesex County police, firefighters and emergency personnel will finally be tied together, thanks to a $700,000 computer program the county plans to buy with federal Homeland Security funds, county officials said yesterday.

The "soft-patch program" is the most expensive item Middlesex County plans to acquire with this year's $1.3 million federal grant, Freeholder Christopher Rafano said.

"There's no question that one of the most important lessons learned from September 11 was the need to improve our communication ability," Rafano said.

Officials decided to make the "soft patch" a priority at a 90-minute meeting yesterday among local, state and county lawmen, firefighters and emergency management officials at the county fire academy in Sayreville.

Rafano said the county also expects to spend $70,000 on portable evacuation equipment, such as beds, linens and other items necessary in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. In addition, $160,000 is earmarked for public health and hazardous material equipment, and $75,000 will be used to train and equip a new 100-officer rapid deployment and response team that the county is forming using corrections officers, prosecutor's office agents and sheriff's officers.

Over the past four years, Middlesex has been using Homeland Security funds to improve communications throughout the county. Police now have their own frequency, as do fire departments and emergency personnel.

"This takes us to the next level, and we can tie in multiple municipalities," said Rory Zach, the county's emergency management coordinator. He said all the agencies will still be able to use their own radios.

The inability to communicate is very frustrating, Middlesex Borough Police Chief James Benson said.

"An officer can be 100 feet away and you can see him but you can't communicate with him," said Benson, a former president of the county chiefs association.

Often police officers from different towns are forced to call into their dispatchers to relay information between departments.

"It's very convoluted, cumbersome - and inaccurate information can go back and forth," Benson said.

Communication has been an issue in law enforcement for at least the past 25 years and the cost of a new system has been a major stumbling block, he said.

Copyright 2007 Newark Morning Ledger Co.
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