Enabling Emergency Responders to Talk to Each Other (sidebar)

(from Maine Townsman, October 2005)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Significant amounts of the Homeland Security money coming into Maine these days is going toward “interoperability,” or consolidating a thicket of emergency radio frequencies into a seamless web.

In this age of instant communication it might come as a surprise that emergency response agencies are often powerless to talk to each other when they converge on a disaster scene. It was one of the glaring weaknesses exposed by both the World Trade Tower bombings and the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes. The weakness was also exposed in Maine on May 12 when a truck carrying explosives overturned on the Maine Turnpike in Wells, forcing an evacuation of nearby residences and the closure of the pike for two hours. At least six agencies were involved – state and local police, Wells fire department, Maine Fire Marshal’s office, Maine Turnpike Authority and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They resorted to passing messages back and forth by runner, said State Fire Marshal John Dean. “We had all these agencies and no single [radio] frequency we could talk on,” he said.

Maine would be the first state in the country to achieve a minimum level of “interoperability” if a collection of agencies is successful in landing a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Fire Administration, said Dean. The money would buy shoe-box size devices that can electronically mesh multiple radio frequencies on the scene. “That’s the beauty of it. Everybody keeps what they have. You don’t have to buy all new stuff,” he said. The so-called “first intercom” equipment is manufactured by British Aerospace Engineering. Maine is considered a good place to test the equipment because of its diversity of geography, climate, and socio-economic factors, he said. Award of the grant should be announced in November or later, he said.

The first intercom system is only an interim step toward interoperability. Ultimately, the entire communications infrastructure in Maine will have to be replaced – radios, dispatch consoles, towers, repeaters – at an estimated cost of $50 million to $200 million, said Shawn Romanoski, interoperability coordinator for Maine state government. Many small departments are still using crystal radios from the 1970s. “All older radios, which means anything over five years old, will have to come out of the field,” said Romanoski. He estimates as many as 9,000 radios are used by state agencies and another 15,000 to 20,000 in use at the local level, although no one has a firm figure.

A lot of new portable radios – as well as new fire trucks and air packs – are being bought with federal emergency preparedness money that has been gushing into Maine since 9/11. Maine received $15.2 million from the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, $22 million in 2004, and $15 million this year, according to Bruce Fitzgerald, who oversees grants for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. Eighty percent of the money is earmarked for the local level, distributed according to a formula that gives weight to population density and risk factors, he said.

Initially, it was pretty easy to get the money as long as it went for an approved category of expenditure related to preparedness, but the state has since begun requiring competitive bidding, according to Fitzgerald. Right now, the state cannot prevent local departments from buying radios separately even if the price is twice as much as a bulk purchase, but is trying to encourage cooperative purchases through state agencies, according to Romanoski.

“How long it takes to get to interoperability depends on the money and how well we spend it,” said Romanoski.

The first new state communications tower is being built on Coggans Hill in Union, consolidating three towers used by five state agencies into a single tower that might also be available to local fire and police departments, said Romanoski. Maine DOT relies on a network of towers built in 1954, and Maine State Police relies on a separate network built in 1974, he said.

Interoperability is one of two priority projects that have received the bulk of Homeland Security funding, according to Fitzgerald. The other project is expanding the number of teams trained and equipped to handle hazardous materials incidents – everything from oil tanker spills to explosions and bio-terror attacks. Homeland security funding has enabled Maine to expand its network of teams from eight to 21. Traditional hazmat response teams – many of which were developed by private industry to handle in-house leaks – are being charged with more sophisticated missions. A recent training exercise in Norridgewock combined a mock chemical explosion with mass casualties with terrorist threats of imminent additional attacks. The exercise involved “dispatching” the acting terrorist through negotiation, as well as first-aid to victims, cleanup, and decontamination.

“First responders are better trained and equipped to protect the public,” said Fitzgerald.