CIO OUTLOOK

Unified radio networks are essential to services

Otto Doll

South Dakota recently awarded a contract for a statewide VHF, digital, trunked radio network. We are one of 28 states developing such a network. The state is working to replace the patchwork of radio frequencies used across agencies or even within a given public safety agency.

For instance, South Dakota sheriffs use low-band, high-band, UHF and 800-MHz frequencies. Public safety agencies often can't talk when they most need to.

Unless a state's system includes all the local jurisdictions, it will never realize the potential of a statewide wireless communications facility.

A proposal must pass three tests.

First, any two vehicles, whether state or local, must be able to communicate. Unfortunately, all too often a state highway patrolman can't help a local sheriff responding to an incident even when they pass within sight of one another.

Second, when an emergency occurs, all potential public safety respondents must be able to talk to one another. The huge tornado that struck South Dakota three years ago showed the stark reality of so many people and resources'emergency medical technicians, firefighters and police, plus all their equipment'hobbled by the inability to communicate. The governor had to make an emergency purchase of radios and have them flown to Spencer.

Third, communications must extend to the federal government. The test of this is the ability of state and local firefighters to communicate with federal firefighters during a forest fire. The most serious problem in fighting last year's Jasper fire in South Dakota was the lack of radio communications among agencies.

To be successful, states need local agencies to participate in the radio system. The state can maintain a state-of-the-art radio system for use by all. Communities statewide will experience more coordinated federal, state and local emergency response. They'll have reliable communications at their disposal and a chance to step into the digital world.

Local agencies wanting to migrate to a new radio system will look to the state to provide several services, such as a trunked network. This means the service can follow a given radio anywhere in the state while using a minimum of bandwidth.

In order to interoperate with federal authorities, the system must be compliant with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials' Project 25 standards. Read about them at apcointl.org/project25/p25.html.

Radio networks must be data-ready because data communications is becoming as important as voice communications in public safety. For instance, data capabilities let police move fingerprints and pictures among agencies and jurisdictions.

Local agencies need a jump-start in moving to digital radio technology. South Dakota Gov. William Janklow made funding for 5,000 radios available to local agencies. As with the Internet, the utility of a radio network increases exponentially with the addition of radios.

South Dakota benefited from the experience of the states that preceded it in the digital radio era. I hope South Dakota's experiences can benefit your decision-making. The sooner all federal, state and local agencies can talk to one another on one radio network, the sooner we can guarantee effective response when citizens need us the most.

Otto Doll, South Dakota's chief information officer, formerly worked in federal information technology and was president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives.

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