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MEMA chief: Maine emergency communications ‘relatively healthy’ since 9-11

Photo Courtesy of Sen. Susan Collins' office
Photo Courtesy of Sen. Susan Collins' office
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, greets Robert McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, to a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, "Ten Years After 9/11: Improving Emergency Communications," on Wednesday, July 27, 2011. Collins heard testimony from McAleer on the progress made since the Sept. 11 attacks on emergency communications and the gaps that still remain to improving communications among first responders.
By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

The director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that emergency communications in the state have improved since the terrorist attacks of 2001, thanks in large part to federal funding.

MEMA Director Robert McAleer testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on which Sen. Susan Collins serves as the ranking Republican member. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is the committee chairman. The hearing was called as a 10-year status review of the nation’s emergency communication capabilities since the 2001 attacks.

First responder groups at the World Trade Center were hampered by an inability to communicate effectively with each other as well as with people trapped on the upper floors of the burning towers, Collins noted in her opening remarks. That failure cost many lives.

“Incredibly, when Hurricane Katrina hit [the Gulf Coast] in 2005, we saw exactly the same kind of problems,” she said. Commercial telephone and electrical networks were destroyed and incompatible radio systems could not connect responder groups with each other, she said, crippling rescue and recovery efforts.

Over the past 10 years, Collins said, the federal government has spent $13 billion to improve emergency communications nationwide.

“What do we have to show for it?” she asked.

McAleer testified that Maine has used approximately $9.5 million in federal grants for upgrading and standardizing communications hardware just since 2007, including the acquisition of handheld radios, antennas and other communications equipment for first responder groups such as firefighters and law enforcement agencies.

In addition, McAleer said Maine has been working to ensure communications “interoperability” — the ability of emergency responder groups to communicate via the same radio frequencies without interference. Fortunately, most Maine responder groups use VHF radios that transmit on similar frequencies, he said, but in some areas, such as the cities of Portland and South Portland, different frequencies are used.

“These jurisdictions have taken steps to ensure they are able to communicate with neighboring communities,” he said.

McAleer said Maine’s 600-mile border with Canada has presented a unique challenge to interoperability, which has been met by conducting a series of cross-border emergency communications working sessions with local, state and federal partners on both sides of the border.

In addition, MEMA has stored “radio caches” at border crossings to ensure emergency responders crossing the border have access to interoperable communication equipment.

Other emergency communications and response investments in Maine include:

  • Four self-contained mobile command vehicles with state-of-the-art radio, cellphone, Internet and satellite capabilities.
  • Portable repeater antennas in each of Maine’s 16 counties to boost radio signals in remote areas.
  • A new high-security Emergency Operations Center in Augusta that is equipped to manage large-scale disasters over time.
  • Maine’s emergency communications system, is in “a relatively healthy position” McAleer told the committee, but more work must be done. In particular, Maine communities must come into full compliance with a federal mandate to convert to narrowband transmission systems, which provide more airspace for radio traffic.

“During an emergency situation, if we do not have solid communications then we will have no coordination,” McAleer said. “We will only have chaos.”

In addition to McAleer, others testifying at the hearing included Gregory Schaffer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey; and Michael D. Varney, statewide interoperability coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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