Linking Rescuers in State a Priority $29 Million to Go For Radio System


BY SARAH FOX ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

If a tornado swirls through or terrorists spray poison from crop-dusters, not all of the state''s emergency responders will be able to communicate with one another on the same radio system.

Some counties'' fire and police departments, ambulance drivers and sheriff''s officers are all on different radio systems, said Richard Griffin, a manager for the state Department of Emergency Management.

But that may change because of a $28.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Gov. Mike Huckabee plans to use the money to upgrade the state police radio system and, as a test, put all emergency responders in four counties on that system.

This is a step toward having all emergency responders in the state on one radio system.

"This truly is a great afternoon for Arkansas," said Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, who attended a news conference Thursday at Arkansas State Police headquarters in Little Rock, where the grant was announced.

Asa Hutchinson, former congressman from the state''s 3rd District, announced the plan for the radio system. Hutchinson is now an undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security where he supervises more than 110,000 employees.

Increasing the capability of the wireless communications system "is necessary for safety, is necessary for response," Hutchinson said.

No country or state is immune from terrorist strikes, he said.

"Spain did not think they were going to have a terrorist attack," he said.

The plan for spending the $28.8 million must be approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Bill Hardin, Huckabee''s law enforcement policy adviser.

But, Valerie Smith, a spokesman for that department, said Arkansas'' plan to spend the money on the radio system already has been approved.

Huckabee plans to upgrade the existing radio system from analog to digital, put up new radio towers and upgrade or replace state police radios, Hardin said.

Besides the state police, many first responders, including fire and local police departments and sheriff''s offices, currently use the state police radio system, Hardin said.

If those first responders already use the state police system as their primary system, their radios will be upgraded or replaced, Hardin said.

Some first responders who do not use the state police radio system as their primary system will get money to replace or upgrade some radios.

"We just don''t have enough money to fix everybody''s everything," Hardin said.

The plan also calls for selecting four of the state''s 75 counties and integrating all of those counties'' first responders on the same radio system as a pilot project. Tentatively, the four counties are Benton, Miller, Lonoke and Craighead, Hardin said.

Huckabee''s long-term goal is that every first responder in the state be able to use the state police radio system, Hardin said. He did not know how much that would cost.

Arkansas received about $27 million last year from the Department of Homeland Security, the department''s first year of existence.

Most of that money went toward creating and training hazardous-materials, decontamination and bomb-defusing teams.

Arkansas now has 23 hazardous-material teams, 18 decontamination teams and four bomb-defusing teams, said Jennifer Gordon, a spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Management.

Before the $27 million grant, Arkansas had few such teams, Gordon said.

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