Disaster readiness compromised by radio communication issues

If a major disaster struck Douglas County that required assistance from outside public safety agencies, most likely they would be unable to communicate by radio with local police and firefighters.

And vice versa.

The federal government wants that nationwide communication problem fixed by 2018. If the problem were to be fixed all at once today in Douglas County, the estimated cost would be up to $9 million.

“There’s a lot of things that can be done to mitigate the situation,” said Jim Denney, Douglas County emergency communications director. “It saves taking the bite in one big chunk.”

That’s why county commissioners may start socking away money now to buy new equipment and prepare for the radio system transformation. The 2007 budget proposal that commissioners are studying calls for putting $500,000 in a Project 25 fund, named after the nationwide directive. Commissioners, of course, could designate less, though they probably will set aside some money each year.

Douglas County Sheriff and police agencies can talk via radio among themselves. They also can talk directly to Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical as well as other local fire departments.

“In Douglas County we are in pretty good shape on that,” Denney said. “But that doesn’t meet all the requirements. If something happens and we get assistance from Nebraska, they may or may not be able to talk to us.”

The federal project basically requires all public safety agencies to switch to digital systems instead of the analog transmissions most agencies currently use. The difference is in the way voice communications are transmitted over the airwaves. Digital systems are more easily compatible than analog.

To make the change gradually, local police and fire departments are urged to purchase hand-held and mobile radios that can work on both analog and digital systems, Denney said. Departments replace older radios as needed anyway, he said.

That is what Fire & Medical is doing, Chief Mark Bradford said.

“Currently we are going through all of our radio system to see either what is or can be adjusted into that (Project 25) system or what we will have to replace,” he said.

In addition to portable and mobile radios, transmitter towers and some dispatch equipment will have to be replaced or altered. That expense alone will be $4 million or $5 million, Denney said.

Denney said he hoped the county could make the transition to digital in 2013, five years ahead of the federal mandate.

“When there’s something like this that happens, I know that by 2013 you are not going to find any quality analog equipment anyway,” Denney said.

The county installed a new 800 megahertz communications system in 1998 and by 2013 it will have neared the end of its life expectancy, Denney said.

“We’re not going to be throwing away a system that has a whole lot of life left,” he said.