Urban Areas Making Strides Toward Improved Communication But Hurdles Exist

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The St. Louis region is well-known for its fragmentation -- and that extends to emergency services like police and fire departments.

St. Louis County alone, for example, has roughly 43 fire agencies, 67 police departments and 91 municipalities. And that doesn't include emergency agencies in Jefferson County, St. Charles County or the Metro East.

Still Nick Gragnani, the executive director of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System, notes some positive developments.

He pointed to the decision of three counties -- St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County -- to pass ballot items to beef up their communications system. And he said STARRS is in the process of developing the infrastructure to allow agencies to talk during an emergency.

Such a system is important not only in the event of a potential terrorist attack, he said, but also in a natural disaster or a catastrophic incident.

The goal is "to have a communications system in the St. Louis metropolitan region (for) when something major happens: the F-5 type tornado in Joplin, the Katrina event or the bridge collapse like what happened in Minneapolis," Gragnani said.

HERDING CATS

The St. Louis area has a jumble of jurisdictions -- and communications systems. And that isn't exactly congruent with the need to talk together during an incident like the Minnesota bridge collapse, Gragnani said.

"You have to take that concept, that parochial idea that 'I want my own thing to handle my daily-type incidents,' but then it's got to be there when a major incident occurs," Gragnani said. "And all those individual townships and municipalities and counties now have to become one response system. There's got to be a system there to where they can all talk to each other so they can coordinate that response."

Getting these agencies on the same communications page has been one of STARRS' largest projects since it started administering Homeland Security money. STARRS has spent nearly $12 million in Homeland Security grants to build an interoperable network since October 2004. Some funds came from Urban Area Security Initiative grants as well as federal funds aimed at building interoperability systems.

STARRS started out purchasing individual radios for the special response teams across the region, including the St. Louis Police Department and security personnel with Metro and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

"We bought [radios] for Lambert airport," Gragnani said. "We bought some for Metro in case there was an incident involving the Metrolink or any one of their buses. But the stipulation was it could not be used for daily use. It had to be put into a suitcase and charged and available when something big happened."

But Gragnani said his agency knew they had to do more. That's why they embarked on building a "microwave" network to band the different agencies together.

Starting in 2007, Gragnani said STARRS began an initiative that includes constructing a microwave communications network of 76 microwave tower sites connected by 85 microwave hops or links.

"When you set up an office complex, you need to have computers on people's desks. You need to have a server that ties all those computers together," Gragnani said. "So in theory, we're actually creating (something) like an intranet that allows all those different radio systems to function individually but then creates regionwide talk groups."

COUNTIES STEP UP

While the microwave towers were one step toward creating interoperability, the next step involved compatible equipment.

As Gragnani noted, St. Louis city and Madison, Monroe and St Clair counties in Illinois all have existing equipment that would work with the microwave system. St. Louis County, Jefferson County and St. Charles County passed bond issues in 2009 to purchase communications equipment.

"In 2009, the three counties -- Jefferson County first in April, followed by St. Charles County in August and then St. Louis County in November -- all received voter approval to the passage of bond issues to build their radio systems," Gragnani said. "That's when this really took on life and picked up speed."

These bond issues allowed the three counties to build interoperable communications systems, which can be sustained by local funding sources.

David "Duff" Barney, the director of emergency communications network for St. Louis County, said a 2009 sales tax increase helps create the infrastructure to bind all of the county's disparate agencies under one radio network.

Barney, who came to St. Louis County in 2010 after spending time in Fairfax County, Va., said radio interoperability has existed for several years in that Washington, D.C., suburb "with thousands of public safety providers able to talk to one another on individual radios."

The goal, Barney said, is to bring that interconnectivity to St. Louis.

"So if a police officer from one municipality and a fire department from 10 miles away or a public works representative or a building inspector from yet another region have to accomplish a task, they will be able to talk to one another with the radios that they are assigned," Barney said. "They won't have to go through some cumbersome patches or reprogramming. They won't have to have special pass-out radios for this one task."

As the Beacon reported earlier this year, malfunctioning radio equipment was a big problem during the Good Friday tornado that swept across north St. Louis County. Some 800 emergency dispatch calls locked up St. Louis County's communications system, which left first responders from the Pattonville Fire District out of the loop.

Ed Kemp, chief of Jefferson County's Office of Emergency Management, said in an interview that nearly $30 million will be spent to purchase new hardware, such as radios. That equipment will be purchased from a sale tax increase of one-half of 1 percent passed in 2009 (for 10 years).

"For Jefferson County, if you can go to the voters, explain what the circumstances are, explain what you're doing and ... what's going to happen when you do it, our voters have been supportive on anything dealing with law enforcement or fire department," Kemp said.

In addition to replacing equipment that meets a looming 2013 FCC mandate -- Kemp noted that some radios in the Sheriff's Department are 15 to 20 years old -- the radios will also move toward the interoperability.

"They can be on the same talk groups and the other thing that we can do that we can't do now is the police will be able to talk to fire departments direct, the fire departments will be able to talk to the EMS direct, the EMS will be able to talk to the police departments direct," Kemp said. "You'll have not only interoperability between the counties, you'll have interoperability between the disciplines."

Towers, not radios, as centerpiece of interoperability

While St. Louis has STARRS, Kansas City has MARRS -- short for the Metropolitan Area Regional Radio System.

The similarities don't end there when it comes to approaches to improving communication among first responders, with Kansas City sharing the challenge of connecting a large region.

Kansas City's homeland security zone encompasses eight counties -- five in Missouri and three in Kansas -- that have nearly 120 cities with a combined population of 2 million people. It is home to the nation's second largest rail hub, its third largest trucking center, along with thriving agriculture and bioscience industries, according to the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), which coordinates the area's homeland security program.

The region is even bigger when you talk about interoperability, said Keith Faddis, MARC's public safety director. That's because Miami County, Kan., which is in the path of the metropolitan area's southwestern sprawl, is part of the 911 network.

Most of the region's communications upgrades came between 2006 and 2010, Faddis said, when it garnered roughly $13.3 million in federal funds. The total includes money through the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program, which is administered through the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

MARC has built the backbone of the system, including the 11-tower Regional Area Multi-Band Integrated System (RAMBIS), rather than purchasing radios or other equipment for first responders.

"We estimate there are about 25,000 radios in the MARC region," he said. "If you try and buy $3,500 radios for those folks, you run out of money pretty quick."
RAMBIS began operating last year as a first step toward improving interoperability. By using a converter, first responders from various jurisdictions can communicate, even if they have different radio equipment and operate on different frequencies. It's a relatively simple system, making it a cost-effective solution. It also provides easier accessibility to first responders from outside the region who provide assistance in a major disaster. The drawback, Faddis said, is that the system only has three channels.

That's where MARRS comes in, he said. With 16 channels, the system can handle multiple emergencies at once -- with one channel, for instance, covering a car chase while a joint search warrant operation plays out on another. But it's likely to be more expensive for agencies to connect to that system, given that it will require them to purchase new equipment. MARRS is built around three "host" agencies: Johnson County, Kan., Kansas City, Mo., and Independence, Mo. The system is expected to be ready by the fourth quarter of this year.

MARRS and RAMBIS are meant to be complementary. Even if agencies do not hook up to MARRS, they will still have interoperability through RAMBIS.

Participating agencies agree to keep their systems up to date. "Because if you don't do that," Faddis said, "eventually your radio won't talk. If it gets three or four versions behind, you are going to have a problem."

Kansas City's improved communications system has not been battle tested by a natural disaster or other regional emergency, but Faddis said officials turned to RAMBIS earlier this year when neighboring Wyandotte County could not receive 911 calls because of a phone problem. Johnson County fielded the emergency calls and then radioed the nature of the call to Wyandotte County through RAMBIS.

The emphasis on interoperability that followed 9/11 expedited efforts already underway in the Kansas City area, Faddis said. Spurred by the fact that Johnson County, Kansas City and Independence were upgrading their systems at the same time, officials were already talking about how to improve the patchwork system that allowed for some interconnectivity.

"Previously, whatever was out there was kind of a cobbled together sort of thing, and it might have been a very localized interoperability," he said. "But now, it's across the region."

North Kansas City, Mo., a municipality just across the Missouri River from Kansas City, Mo., is one jurisdiction that will tie into MARRS, but participation won't come cheaply. The city expects to spend $1.6 million this fiscal year to upgrade equipment for its police department, said Maj. Jesse McLendon. He's the department's support services and homeland security commander, and he's also co-chair of MARC's Regional Interoperability Committee.

The investment is worth it, McLendon said. It wasn't so long ago, he said, that interoperability meant carrying three radios in your car to speak with various agencies. With MARRS, they will need just one.

McLendon has spent nearly half his 41-year law enforcement career working to improve interoperability in the region, and the new systems coming on line are "kind of the pinnacle of getting it done."

And, he added, "I won't get to see it finished." He heads into retirement after today.

FRANKLIN COUNTY: BETWEEN ROCK AND HARD PLACE?While other counties are figuring out ways to meet the looming FCC mandate and hook up to an integrated system, Franklin County is caught in uncomfortable limbo.

The fast-growing county is too large to latch onto federal grants that have helped smaller jurisdictions pay for radios. And officials there say it's unlikely they'd be able to raise their sales tax to pay for new equipment.

In essence, Sherriff Gary Toelke said the county is struggling to figure out what to do.

"It's kind of frustrating to be in our situation and have somebody say, 'You have to do this and we're not going to give you any money for it,'" Toelke said. "I don't know what the consequences are going to be if we don't. And I've asked that a few times and not really got a great answer."

Franklin County, Toelke said, is financially strapped and "doing it on our own is pretty much not going to happen."

Toelke added, "The sales tax issue, that obviously would be a way to fund it. But there again, taxes aren't real possible right now. And I just don't know if it would pass or not. There are just a lot of unanswered questions. But right now, we just can't flat out afford it."

That's not to say officials in the county don't see the need for interoperability. Abe Cook, the director of the Franklin Emergency Management Agency, said, "Interoperability is very important; it's second only to operability."

"The ability to bring in people from the surrounding areas with professional services and communicate with them could potentially save lives and property -- and money," Cook said.

Toelke said the county formed a committee that is looking into seeing whether the county's equipment conforms to the FCC mandate. He added that if the county can't comply with the mandate that it might apply for an extension.

But Toelke said there's still uncertainty about what will happen if Franklin County can't meet requirements.

"Are we going to be in our own little world where we can't talk to anybody in any other areas?" Toelke said. "What's going to be outcome of that?"

Mike Sherry, the executive director of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, contributed to this report.

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