Communication systems that work across governmental lines

A handful of states are in the forefront of building communication systems that work across governmental lines.

Congressional Quarterly 
By Ellen Perlman 

Two years ago, a report came in of a plane crash on a grassy hillside near Anchorage's airport, in the middle of a park where children were having a picnic. First responders from the police, fire and EMS departments rushed to the scene, where they encountered lots of smoke and about 200 moaning or shouting victims. Some of the wounded ran at the responders, screaming for help, while others lay on the ground, bruised and bleeding. Soon, there was more major confusion. When many of the rescuers flipped on their radios and began to talk at once, the system jammed. Someone had to stop the verbal chaos in order for the rescue effort to continue.

That was Heather Handyside's job. She called on everyone to stop talking. "I used the finger-across-the-throat sign," says Handyside, Anchorage's director of emergency management and homeland security. "There was a cacophony of people talking to each other with no protocol." Fortunately, the plane crash was staged. All the trauma and blood came from good acting and lots of make-up. The exercise was a drill to test the readiness of first responders.

It was also a good test of the interoperability of a radio system that's been 10 years in the making--and not finished yet. The radio technology worked just fine. It was how the people used it that hit more bumps than the plane. Things were going smoothly while the plane was in the air. The shift in command went well, during a switch from Federal Aviation Administration command to the Federal Bureau of Investigation when the wheels touched down. Normally, there's a stutter step during such a command change. The Tower of Babel scene didn't start until the ground response began. "I thought it would be my moment of glory," says Handyside. Instead, protocol lessons on how to communicate were put on the to-do list.

A decade ago, the U.S. Department of Defense opened Alaska's eyes to the need for a statewide, shared radio communications system for emergencies. That foresight on the part of the feds, and the state's quick support for and involvement in the idea, has put Alaska in the forefront of states' efforts to create statewide radio interoperability. States in the Lower 48, such as Indiana and Michigan, also are making good progress on building radio systems that cross government lines, so that it becomes easier to communicate at the scene of a catastrophe.

But many other state and local governments are struggling to figure out how to get such a huge and complex project on track--or how to become a part of one. Too often, responders in those places can't make direct contact with people standing 30 feet away. It's not uncommon to see them carrying three or four radios to talk to everyone they need to. Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen just signed an executive order in August that creates a board to aid in developing a statewide communications system for use during disasters. It has yet to be planned or designed, let alone implemented.

In Alaska, most federal, state and local departments now can communicate easily via the Alaska Land Mobile Radio System. That is especially important in such a large and remote state. Departments ranging from state transportation to the federal DOD to local fire departments can communicate easily when they arrive to offer assistance at a disaster scene. North Pole can talk to Elmendorf Air Force Base can talk to Valdez, as if they belonged to the same department.

What makes Alaska's system unique, according to officials, is that it is able to interoperate seamlessly from VHF (very high frequency) 150 MHz all the way to 700/800 MHz, a wide spectrum that used to derail interoperability efforts. Some states are close to being interoperable statewide but not necessarily across such a broad range of frequencies. Usually, it's on a single frequency band, such as 700 MHz or 800 MHz, which could leave out some departments or agencies.

Alaska's relatively steady progress has taken considerable effort on the part of the federal, state and local representatives working on it. It hasn't been easy, and it isn't cheap. But the hardest part is governance. It can be as tedious as trying to whittle steel. Interoperability isn't exactly an exciting issue for voters or public officials, despite the fact that when communications fail during disasters, it garners a lot of negative press.

Interestingly, as involved as Anchorage is in the planning and development of the system, most of its departments will be the last ones to join. That is intentional. Only the fire department is on it now. The rest of the city's departments have been waiting for the availability of the more robust 700 MHz frequency and for new technologies that allow for better communications inside buildings, an important feature for urban areas but less of a need where the caribou roam.


There is a sense among Alaskans that whatever comes to pass, they are going to have to take care of themselves, at least for a little while. "We're very aware of the fact that whatever happens, it's going to be just us," says chief information officer Mike Callahan. "If we have an incident, whether security or a terrorist incident or a natural disaster, in the best case it will be 48 hours before anybody shows up."

In the mid-1990s, a huge and terrible blaze known as the Miller's Reach fire raged over 37,000 Alaskan acres. It was moving quickly, destroying hundreds of homes and trapping firefighters. Responders from outside the area who came to help weren't able to use their radios to tell firefighters what they saw happening with the blaze. Or warn them to get out of where they were or risk being trapped. That event was the impetus for Alaska to move forward on interoperability.

Alaska's special circumstances have made developing an interoperable system harder in some ways, simpler in others. There are fewer layers of government, making cooperation easier. And there is more of a pressing need because of its size and distance from the rest of the states. But the terrain and the climate are rough. The sites where towers, antennas and buildings go often are isolated. And there's a short summer window for getting the infrastructure in place. Equipment for sites has been delivered by four-wheel-drive vehicles and snowmobiles. Maintenance workers have gone in and been stranded for days.

Then, there are the remote villages more than 500 miles away from anything else. How will they get connected? The state conducted a successful experiment with satellite phones but has chosen to focus on finishing the main system for interoperability and will return to the villages issue later. Meanwhile, the disaster drills continue.

This past spring, Alaska embarked on another 10-day, stuff-hits-the-fan exercise. A ship slipped into harbor with a biological threat. There was an attack on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system and the North Pole Industrial Complex. And a passenger train collided with a diesel fuel truck. There were three parallel response efforts focusing on law enforcement, protecting critical infrastructure and dealing with medical issues.

This time, the system was able to segregate the communications of one group from another but also connect between them when necessary. People did not jam radios and talk over each other. "Talk groups" were defined and worked well. "We made sure communications were not stepped on," says John Madden, director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.


Other governments have tripped over the governance issues. Getting the parties to the table is just the start. Keeping them there takes skill and diplomacy. "It's like a good marriage," says Handyside. In Alaska, an executive council is the top policy-making body for the communications project. Four people represent the state, localities, the Department of Defense and federal non-DOD agencies. They chip away at the difficult issues until they reach consensus. "I really think I can solve peace in the Middle East now," Handyside says. Decisions have to be unanimous. Sometimes it can take a long time to reach consensus. A new cooperative agreement has been in the making for three years so far. There's also a users group made up of everyone who has a radio. All have a voice.

With something this difficult, top policy makers have to commit to a long-term, sure-to-be-thorny process. They have to agree that "the first time we hit a bump in the road, we're not going to take our toys and go home," says Callahan. Those bumps are guaranteed, and some won't be trivial. People have to keep working away at finding agreements.

Some of the tedium comes from hammering out the details. Agencies must agree to, and sign off on, a complex series of cooperative and service-level agreements. Those decisions don't come easy. What level of security, coverage and clarity will suit all the players? Do they want a Cadillac or a Yugo, and if they want a Cadillac, are they willing to pay for it? Is it okay to monitor the system remotely, or is it important to have a person on duty 24/7? How many sites will there be? Where will they be placed? What's most strategic to serve the most customers? All of these decisions require compromise.

The executive council's goal was for police, fire and other personnel to endorse a macro level of interoperability for the whole community. Departments are used to operating within their own disciplines in their own way. Suddenly, they're being asked to abandon familiar activities and follow a new set of practices. It can feel like ice water in the face. Police in Alaska were asked to drop the "10-code" system for emergencies involving other departments. No more "10-four, over and out" because no one outside the department knows all the codes. They're not even uniform across the country. "If they don't agree to lose the police lingo or follow standard protocols, communications are not going to work," says Handyside.

The council also worked on getting representation for smaller communities and making sure they didn't feel threatened by the "big boys." There's skepticism all around when agencies have to give up control and rely on the goodwill of partners they don't know to be fair on major decisions that affect their jobs. Interestingly, the biggest user of Alaska's radio system is the state Department of Transportation. It has a huge workforce that plows, sands, repairs and builds roads around the vast state, even though it has fewer roads than New Hampshire.

The Department of Defense is not a typical partner, but DOD has turned out to be an "excellent driver" for getting things done, Handyside says. The military is disciplined and focused, and the radio system is a major priority for them. They've been steadfast in pushing forward. "You just get it done, no question," she says.

There remains another huge challenge for entities attempting this: financing. States and local governments are using many different ways to pay for these radio systems. In Indiana, the state is building the bulk of the infrastructure. The original contract was for $91 million and 126 sites. A technology fee that the Department of Motor Vehicles was collecting now goes toward the infrastructure and will be a guaranteed revenue stream until 2019.

Michigan financed its original system, built between 1994 and 2002 with Michigan State Building Authority bonds. Since 2002, 34 sites have been added by local governments to handle portable radio communication needs. About $100 million in local infrastructure enhancements have been made, funded by a combination of local revenues and bonds, and federal grants. Michigan's challenge now is the administrative headache of dealing with so many local entities clamoring to get into the system.

Alaska has been fortunate in that the feds supplied the lion's share of the infrastructure. The Defense Department needs this system to support the U.S. Missile Defense Program. That's why it's the main investor. The state provided most of the sites. And cities have hefty payments to make. Anchorage, for example, is on the hook for $22 million. The city has gathered funds through bonds, homeland security grants, Department of Justice grants and the state legislature. Mayor Mark Begich has made funding the interoperable system a priority. The four city agencies eligible to apply for homeland security grants--public health, police, fire and emergency management--were allowed to submit applications for the radio system and nothing else.

Smaller entities will pay less, but their share is still being negotiated. They will not buy sites, but they will need to buy radios. And it will cost a few million dollars per year to operate the system. The largest payers are the state and DOD. "If I'm the Chugiak Fire Department, I'm not going to pay as much," says Callahan. Other states have given up when the financing and governance decisions got too hard. "There have been an embarrassing number of people who tried this and failed when they get down to implementation and who's going to pay for what," Callahan says. "All of a sudden everyone goes, 'I'm not paying for that. I'm not paying for that.'"

Alaska is still trying to figure out how to break down costs: Will it be per radio? By amount of use? Something else? DOD, for instance, may have thousands of radios but may seldom use them. Local police may have only a few hundred but use them all the time. Whatever method is chosen, smaller communities will have to be taken into account. If the cost is too high, local fire departments that might have to cover the cost of their radios by holding bake sales could beg off the system. That would defeat the point--statewide interoperability.

Yet how to persuade elected officials to invest money in something that will bring them no bragging rights? Most of these projects do not come to fruition for many years. Without a committed leader pushing to make interoperable communications a priority, agencies might prefer to stockpile pharmaceuticals or buy protective equipment instead.

Federal grants are available, though. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has a $1 billion grant program to help agencies buy, deploy and train people to use new interoperable communications systems that utilize the recently reallocated public safety radio spectrum.

In Alaska, the system is expected to be mostly completed and connected by 2009, including all of Anchorage's departments. Handyside hopes that soon after that, when the time comes for police, fire and others to work together in an emergency, it will be a reflex for them to communicate properly with everyone else on the system. More broadly, she hopes that "radio communications are not going to be an impediment, as they are in every exercise." Roger that. 

Copyright 2007 Congressional Quarterly, Inc. DBA Governing Magazine

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