Safety agencies face radio deadline

Posted Sept. 05, 2010, at 8:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Federal Communications Commission in 2004 ordered all public safety radio users to switch to frequencies that occupy less bandwidth. But many Maine agencies have not followed that order or started to plan the move.

Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Rob McAleer said the FCC mandate, whose deadline for the new systems to be operating is Jan. 1, 2013, is intended to reduce the amount of bandwidth used by public safety agencies by introducing better technology.

“We are faced with a huge challenge with narrow banding,” McAleer said in a recent interview. “We have been very active in getting the word out about why this is happening and what it means.”

Many agencies have bought new equipment or upgraded existing equipment to meet the new rule, he said, “but we have a lot of small agencies that have not started the process to respond to this need, and I am worried what happens when they can’t use their radios.”

He said Congress has allowed the yearly grants from the Department of Homeland Security to be used for upgrading and replacing radios. But, he said, that is also the same money used to pay for training of first responders and specialized response teams located across the state.

“After you take away the fixed costs we have, there is about a million dollars available for grants,” McAleer said. “I did a survey of our county emergency management directors of what they thought their cities and towns would need, and it is about $4 million.”

He said in addition to pushing the issues at meetings, MEMA has teamed up with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to develop a CD for distribution to towns and agencies spelling out the problem and how to comply with the federal requirement.

Bangor Fire Chief Jeff Cammack, president of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, said there have been efforts to get agencies to comply with the federal requirement. He shares the concern that there will be small towns that do not comply and as a result will be unable to communicate with other agencies after the deadline has passed.

“Their budgets might be $8,000 or $10,000 a year and this could be a very expensive item for them,” he said. “I don’t think we, in the fire service, have a handle on how many agencies out there are not ready for the change.”

Cammack said Bangor and other cities already have made the move to narrow band radios as part of their regular budgets and with some grants. He said the cost varies whether an agency is upgrading existing equipment or needs to buy new radios.

Camden Police Chief Phil Roberts, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said the situation is similar for police agencies. He believes most large law enforcement agencies already have moved to narrow band radio.

“We have had discussions about this and the chiefs share the concerns raised by MEMA,” he said.

Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking GOP senator on the Homeland Security Committee, said Congress has provided some funding through grants to help pay for the narrow banding. She said both the general homeland security grants and specific grant funds to improve radio communications interoperability have been made to the state.

“In an era when we can send text messages and videos around the world instantaneously, it is unacceptable that our first responders are sometimes unable to talk with each other in an emergency,” she said. “Interoperable and robust emergency communications are a critical concern for first responders.”

Collins said local agencies should work with MEMA to establish plans to meet the long-known transition to narrow band radios. She said the responsibility lies with all levels of government to meet the bottom line of communications systems that allow all first responders to communicate in a crisis.

McAleer said state agencies are in the process of upgrading all of their communications systems to a new statewide radio network serving agencies from the Maine State Police to the Marine Patrol. He said it is crucial that local agencies have the upgraded radio capability to talk with all other public safety and state agencies in case of a major disaster.

“We have to have that ability for agencies to communicate,” he said.

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