Federal program seeks to avoid failure to communicate in emergencies
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2011 - John Redden, deputy chief of police in Carterville, doesn't take his upgraded communications system for granted. That's just not something you can do in a small southwestern Missouri town.
Redden's department got new radios, courtesy of federal Homeland Security money. They make Redden's job in the police department easier, but, more important, he says the devices saved officers' lives in the line of duty.
"I can tell you these radios are lifesavers," he said.
For smaller departments like Carterville, federal grants have helped modernize communications. Such equipment makes it easier for them to do their jobs -- and, at times, have been a lifeline. But when a once-in-a-lifetime tornado hit Joplin earlier this spring, Carterville had trouble linking up with the beleaguered community's radios. That showcased one of the stresses of interoperable communications systems.
The concept of interoperability is simple: It allows emergency response agencies to talk to each other when an emergency strikes. Interoperability has been a major component of Homeland Security, especially after the 9/11 attacks showcased failures in communication among public safety personnel.
Bigger jurisdictions -- such as the St. Louis region -- have taken it upon themselves to buy equipment to improve communications and coordination. Homeland Security supplements the effort by providing funds for building a microwave network to connect emergency personnel in an emergency.
For smaller communities throughout the state, the rush to get radios is driven in part by a Federal Communications Commission mandate taking effect in 2013.
One conservative critic of the Department of Homeland Security's grants says the program is self-defeating. Even if a smaller community receives money to purchase the radios, they may be stuck with inferior equipment if future federal money doesn't come through in subsequent years.
"In a couple of years, you're back where you started from," said James Jay Carafano, a policy expert at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. "So the impact is negative."
The Department of Homeland Security defines interoperability as "the ability of emergency responders to work seamlessly with other systems or products without any special effort."
The department's website explains: "When communications systems are interoperable, police and firefighters responding to a routine incident can talk to each other to coordinate efforts. Communications interoperability also makes it possible for emergency response agencies responding to catastrophic accidents or disasters to work effectively together."
The need for interoperable communications was made abundantly clear after the 9/11 attacks, when different emergency management agencies had trouble communicating with each other. That led to an effort to bolster communications systems throughout the country.
Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said that $23.22 million has been sent to local jurisdictions since 2005 for mobile and portable radios, base stations, repeaters, communications vehicles, software, maintenance and accessories. O'Connell added that grants from 2007 to 2010 are still available and that the figure does not include expenditures that are planned or obligated.
That figure, O'Connell said, stems from money provided to the state from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's State Homeland Security Grant Program and, starting in 2007, from the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant.
"The state of Missouri applies for and administers grant funds received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to build capabilities to prepare for and respond to emergencies and disasters," O'Connell said in an e-mailed statement. "Eighty percent of this money must support these capabilities at the local level. The capability to communicate across jurisdictional and discipline lines...has been one of the top priorities in Missouri's homeland security program the past six years."
Carterville, the Jasper County town of roughly 1,800 people, received $18,225 in grants to buy three mobile radios and eight portable radios, according to the State Emergency Management Agency.
Other agencies in southwest Missouri that received the grants, according to a 2007 article from the Joplin Business Journal, included police departments in Diamond, Granby, Lamar, Sarcoxie and Webb City. The Barton County and McDonald County Sheriff's departments also received grants.
While the radios generally have been used in day-to-day situations, Redden said, they've also been crucial during emergencies. On May 22, when a massive tornado hit Joplin, roughly eight miles from Carterville, Redden said the department communicated with other emergency response jurisdictions for search, rescue and recovery efforts.
"One of the requirements for accepting [the grants for the radios] is whenever you have the radios, there has to be a mutual aid programmed into that," Redden said. "And with (the Joplin tornado), we were using our police mutual aid to communicate with other jurisdictions when most of the other communications were down."
Redden said the department was able to communicate with personnel from smaller Jasper County communities such as Duenweg or Oronogo. But the department couldn't get in touch with Joplin officials because of the differences between the radios.
"There's the analog system like we use and then there's the digital system that bigger agencies use like Joplin's," Redden said. "When it comes to using two completely different operating systems, yeah, there's an obstacle there."
Keith Stammer, who heads the emergency management division for Joplin and Jasper County, said communication was "adequate" between Joplin and surrounding communities.
Joplin took it upon itself to upgrade its radio system a few years ago, Stammer said, and it didn't involve federal grants.
Those radios, Stammer said, allowed for Joplin to communicate with the Missouri Highway Patrol. He also said communication between Joplin and Jasper County agencies were "excellent." But Stammer added, smaller agencies -- such as Carterville -- that didn't have as sophisticated equipment as Joplin couldn't communicate directly during the tornado.
"Trying to find common ground between those communications systems -- which I realize is not everything to interoperable communication -- is in my mind a major hurdle to get past to find some way to get those two systems combined," Stammer said.
But that didn't mean agencies didn't communicate during the tornado.
"What we did was about the only thing you could do in a disaster situation like that: We started handing out radios," Stammer said, adding that they also invited people into the emergency operations center where people can talk face-to-face. "But you play like you practice. In times of emergency, people do what they're used to doing. They brought their handhelds with them. And that was fine. We encourage that."
Stammer said Carterville's situation during the tornado "is not a surprise" and "endemic of the rest of the situation across the state of Missouri." So without grants how can smaller communities get the radio equipment they need to comply with a looming FCC mandate and to be able to talk with other agencies during an emergency?
"The answer is you can't," Stammer said.
And for mid-size communities like Joplin, Stammer said it's highly unlikely that federal grants will be enough to build their radio systems. He said those communities will likely be on their own to obtain those funds.
"That's going to be needs driven," Stammer said. "We need to be able to talk to other agencies; we need to be able to communicate with them because mutual aid is the name of the game. There's no agency around here, Joplin included, that's big enough with manpower, equipment or facilities to handle any major disaster. And we recognize that."
One reason smaller communities angled for the interoperability grant was a 2013 mandate from the FCC for emergency personnel to have "narrowband" communications systems. According to a 2007 press release from Gov. Matt Blunt's office, meeting that mandate was a primary reason for divvying up the money.
"We are maximizing the Homeland Security funds by using a competitive initiative to allow more Missouri communities to access these grants," Blunt said in his 2007 statement. "This federal grant will continue to help law enforcement and first responders communicate with each other on-scene and relay information to the local emergency operations center."
The FCC's website says the mandate "will allow the creation of additional channel capacity within the same radio spectrum and support more users." An inability to comply with the mandate, according to the FCC, could result in FCC enforcement action, "which may include admonishment, monetary fines, or loss of license."
As Marceline Police Department Sgt. Bob Donelson explained, meeting the FCC requirements early helped the northern Missouri department put the department in the front of the line to get the money.
"The good thing about meeting those requirements early...is we don't have to be trying to run right at the very end and competing with anybody else that could be in that boat," Donelson said. "Grant situations are extremely, extremely competitive in the state of Missouri, especially with smaller agencies. And it's just very hard to get them because everybody's after them."
In 2007, Marceline was reimbursed $21,685 to purchase four mobile radios and six portable radios, according to SEMA. Unlike Carterville, Donelson said his department has yet to use the equipment for an emergency.
Similar situations unfolded for the Iberia Police Department in Miller County and the Ripley County Sheriff's Department. The monitoring reports show that the Iberia law enforcement agency was reimbursed $17,526 in 2007 for the purchase of five portable radios and seven mobile radios. Iberia Police Department Chief Andrew Long said his officers have yet to use them in an emergency.
"I would say in a situation where we had to have it, it would be a benefit to speak to officers who aren't normally in this area," Long said.
Ripley County Sheriff Ron Barnett said the radios that they received from the grant have served the area well.
"Communication is a big issue when you're out here in these very remote areas," Barnett said. "We've got a lot of land out here where there are not a lot of people around. And we depend solely upon the communications system. And without that grant...that would have been very difficult."
O'Connell said that the equipment "is intended to be used for both day-to-day internal communications but also to facilitate interoperable communications between the agency and surrounding jurisdictions when needed in an emergency." He also said the funds have gone toward allowing local law enforcement agencies to meet the FCC requirement.
"Safer communities are the objective of interoperable communications programs," added O'Connell. "The idea is that allowing neighboring jurisdictions and multiple disciplines to communicate on common channels leads to better emergency and disaster response."
Need for federal funding
There's one common link with the smaller departments interviewed by the Beacon: All representatives say it would have been difficult to obtain the radios without federal funding.
"With our budget the way it is in the county and everything, there would have been no way we'd been able to do that," Barnett said.
Long added that the Iberia department "would never have been able to afford a radio of caliber without this grant."
Redden, the deputy chief in Carterville, expressed similar sentiments. "We're a very small town of about 1,800," Redden said. "So we have small staff and we don't have any kind of a tax base. We're more of a bedroom community. So without the funding, there's no way we'd been able to upgrade."
"As matter of fact, there's still equipment that we're still trying to get to upgrade our communications systems," Redden added. "And we're having to go through a local law enforcement grant to be able to buy simple things like antennas for our communication systems. ...There's no way we could ever afford one radio, not to mention the six or seven that we were granted, plus the three mobile radios."
Carafano of the Heritage Foundation said the dependence on federal dollars can be self-defeating.
"The federal money doesn't last forever," Carafano said. "So if you're not paying for it yourself, what happens when the federal money runs out? Normally the thing runs out. So if you buy the radio, great. And then the money goes away. So there's no logistics, there's no support, there's no maintenance, there's no training, there's no replacement radios. So in a couple of years, you're back where you started from."
Carafano said of the potential terrorist attacks thwarted since 9/11, most were associated with New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. So spreading a few tens of millions of dollars around the country, he said, has "absolutely zero impact against literally drops in the ocean."
"It is simply another form of pork-barrel legislation," Carafano said. "And what's ironic here -- you have the department really cutting corners on things that are fundamentally the department's responsibility. The Coast Guard's got ships that are old enough for Social Security. You've got Coast Guard equipment that is literally falling apart, and they can't afford to fix it. And they're giving a bunch of money to people that's really having very, very little impact."
But Redden said the radios made a big -- even life-changing -- difference within his department.
"The older radios we had were two-channel Motorolas that we were lucky if we could get out of the building," Redden said. "And these have saved officers' lives. I know that for a fact."
Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers state government and politics.