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Public Safety Communication.

Date: February 3, 2009
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Public safety officials urged legislators Tuesday to find funds for a statewide radio communications system to avoid the kind of problems that plagued firefighters and police at the World Trade Center on 9-11.

The House Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee was reviewing a proposal to establish a statewide system that would allow police and fire and rescue personnel to communicate with each across the state.

The comittee heard public testimony Tuesday from representatives of law enforcement groups supporting an overhaul of the statewide radio system for emergency dispatchers, framing it as a safety issue for citizens and first responders.

On Jan. 20, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon put on hold an $81.7 million Motorola contract that former Gov. Matt Blunt had authorized shortly before leaving office last month.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti last week told the Associated Press that the project was halted as a result of Nixon's re-examining of all new state contracts.

Currently, the Missouri State Highway Patrol's system does not allow real-time connectivity with responders statewide and across all radio frequencies. There are also separate systems for voice and data communication. 

"Without having a communication system that is statewide, it is much harder for first responders to reach one another," the House committee was told by Greg Brown, board member of the Missouri Fire Education Commission. "We need all our responders to be able to talk to each other all over Missouri."

Various emergency responders said a statewide system is needed for major disasters such as the ice storm in the southern part of the state that forced the House committee to cancel its hearing on this issue last week.

Brown said during major disasters, such as the Mississippi River flooding, jurisdictions have brought in added equipment to help responders communicate, but that connectivity is often "tenuous at best."

Nixon said last month that the state currently does not have the funding to support this project. While nobody spoke against the need to upgrade the state system, state Rep. Jamila Nasheed, D-St. Louis, questioned if a major construction and telecommunications project such as this was feasible in a down economy.

"I think we will agree that security is a major issue," she said. "I think the issue is when it comes to this state is the cost and the amount that it will cost to implement a service of that magnitude."

Tim Fischesser of the St. Louis County Municipal League said that the system would be a major project that would not be implemented right away. He said in the St. Louis area, local governments are struggling now to link their emergency response systems in just a five-county region.

"Everybody wants to move in the right direction, but it's easier said than done," he said, adding that in St. Louis County alone, the state might have to build nearly a dozen more radio communication towers.  "We would probably have to build three or four towers and see if we could co-share six or eight more."

When Nasheed asked how much a tower would cost the state and local governments, Fischesser said he had estimated each tower would cost four or five million dollars each.

But Fischesser said interoperability was important to the safety of all Missourians, and other speakers said the state would be regretful if there were a natural disaster and lives were lost that could have been saved because responders could have communicated with each other more effectively.

In the Republican Party's response to Nixon's State of the State speech last week, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder pilloried the governor's decision to halt funding, citing the New York City Police Department's inability to communicate efficiently with the city's fire department during the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"The citizens of this state should never have to question how equipped we are to keep our communities safe or how prepared we are to deal with an emergency," Kinder said. On Sept. 11, "firefighters lost their lives because they never heard the police warning that the building was beginning to crumble.  At this very moment, we have the same communication problem in many parts of our state."

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