Making Emergency Agencies Communicate

Communication between varying emergency agencies is a long-standing problem, not just in Maine, but throughout the country.

Fire departments often even can’t talk to police departments out of their jurisdiction, and when you start bringing the various federal, state and county agencies into the picture it can be a real nightmare. And the consequences for this lack of “interoperability” can be dire. First responders can end up on a scene and not be aware of critical details about what they are responding to, such as whether there is a hazardous chemical release or a gunman present. This problem came to national prominence in the wake of 9/11, and the Federal Department of Homeland Security has required total interoperability between all emergency responder communications by Jan. 1, 2013.

While this sounds simple on paper, this is hugely complicated in practice. To prevent overlapping frequencies and the resulting interference that can cause, the FCC must license all the frequencies involved. For Maine, this will require 302 separate frequency applications. Further complicating this issue is the fact that because of our proximity to Canada, 186 of those frequencies will require Canadian approval as well.

The state Office of Information Technology (OIT) decided to scrap the current, conventional, analog system used by all emergency responders in Maine and replace it with a narrow-band, digital, trunked radio system operated by the State Police. Because of the great complexity of setting up this new system, OIT signed a contract in June, 2009 with the Harris Corporation. Harris is being paid nearly $49 million to develop and implement a statewide radio network to replace the current system. As part of this contract, Harris promised to acquire all 302 frequencies by December 2011 in order to be ready to implement the new radio system by the required date of Jan. 1, 2013.

Unfortunately, things have not gone according to plan. To this day, after spending considerable sums on new equipment and new radio towers, the State has fallen far short of the goal and still needs more than 200 frequencies.  Until all the frequencies can be approved, all local and county emergency responders will continue to use the current analog radio system. The question is whether local, county and state emergency responders will be able to easily communicate with each other since the state will be on a separate system. Harris says there will be interoperability, but Harris also said it would have all the frequencies by December 2011, so I am skeptical, at best.

A few years ago, the Department of Health and Human Services sought to upgrade their computer system, and the result was a disaster that cost the state millions of dollars more than predicted (or budgeted for), and I fear that this could be a repeat of that situation. I will be keeping a very close eye on this over the next few months, and will keep you informed about how it all turns out.

As always, I welcome your input on this issue, or other issues in Augusta. You can call my office at the State House at 287-1515 or visit my website, to send me an e-mail.

Senator Bill Diamond is a resident of Windham, and serves the District 12 communities of Casco, Frye Island, Raymond, Standish, Windham and Hollis.

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