Technology, training go hand in hand in improving police communications

About 60 percent of Homeland Security Department grants to state and local governments in the last four years have been for interoperable communications, according to James Turk, program manager for the Office of Domestic Preparedness.

Technology has evolved quickly to provide communications between local, state and federal emergency responders, but officials are discovering that buying hardware is only a first step.

'Training is suddenly raising its head as a real problem,' Turk said Tuesday at a discussion sponsored by the Industry Advisory Council.

Police equipped with new digital voice and data systems often revert to older, more familiar channels during crises, according to Turk.

'Stress changes how you use things,' he said. 'Training is the key. It will be a never-ending requirement.'

Montgomery County, Md., is eight years into a program to provide high-bandwidth mobile data services to its 1,600 officers. The program has taken twice as long and cost twice as much as expected, 'but we have been able to build out an 800MHz digital trunk voice system' that can communicate with similar systems in the region and put 1,100 mobile networked computers into the field, said David Lynn, director of the county police technology division.

Lynn said the technology has increased the amount of time an officer spends on the beat by about one-third, and it is being used to put people in jail. But the technology is only a tool, Lynn said, adding that to be useful, it requires training, cultural change and technical support.

'We're struggling with all three in Montgomery County,' he said.

County officers have received five days of training over three years.

'Training has been a huge expense,' primarily in officer overtime, Lynn said. 'It's expensive and intensive.'

Yet he has found that firefighters adapt to the same technology more quickly than police.

'The fire people exercise with the technology,' he said, routinely testing it in situations outside the norm. 'Police don't do that.'

As a result, when crises occur, firefighters are more likely to take full advantage of their technology and not revert to old habits of communication.

Michael Duffy, deputy CIO for the Justice Department, which funds many local law enforcement communications programs, said classroom training is not enough to make the systems effective and emphasized the need for extensive field training.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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