State grants $400,000 for radio network that links emergency units

Communication system will unite police and fire departments

November 17, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Spurred by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Maryland police and fire officials hope to weave the state's hundreds of disparate police and fire radio frequencies into a single communications web during the next nine months -- creating one of the first fully integrated statewide emergency networks in the nation.

It has been nearly impossible for emergency workers from different departments to connect with each other by radio. When a dozen or so entities are working at one scene, it is often easier for them to communicate by shouting to one another than it is for them to use their radios, officers have said.

The state's solution, announced yesterday, is to install seven radio units that would provide constant links connecting all of the state's emergency workers -- and connect the system to federal agencies and other large communication webs if necessary. Each unit costs about $17,000.

The Maryland State Police will coordinate the project, funded by a $400,000 grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, and the University of Maryland will provide technical assistance.

Lt. Michael E. Bennett, commander of the electronic systems division of the state police, said the system could be assembled within nine months.

JPS Communications Inc., based in Raleigh, N.C., developed the radio networking system, called ACU-1000, about two years ago, said Roger D. Williams, director of communications interoperability for JPS. Federal agencies have been the company's primary customers, he said.

Maryland is the first state to implement a radio networking system statewide, Williams said, adding that JPS is the sole provider of the complex system.

"The quality of communications equipment can be as vital as the quality of a sidearm," state police Superintendent Col. David B. Mitchell said yesterday at an Interstate 95 rest stop in Laurel, where the project was announced and the new technology demonstrated.

Radio troubles may have been part of the reason why more than 300 New York firefighters died in the World Trade Center collapse while fewer police were buried in the rubble.

Charles Mattingly, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association, said radio alerts about the impending building collapse reached police officers but not firefighters.

"We are still developing state-of-the-art systems that do not interact," Mattingly said yesterday. "That must change."

The Maryland State Police have a new mobile unit that can temporarily patch numerous departments into a single radio system. It has not been used in an emergency, but it is ready for action, state police said.

Within minutes of a major event, such as a tornado or a plane crash, the patching system would be used as a communication backbone for all responding emergency workers.

State police said the JPS radio system is not a permanent solution. They plan for police, fire and rescue departments across the state to be integrated into a single statewide 700-megahertz radio system within 10 years, Bennett said.

States such as Delaware and Michigan have a statewide single-frequency system, and many others are in the process of converting, he said.

To supplement voice communications, part of the $400,000 grant will pay for 100 handheld wireless devices -- at $399 to $499 apiece, depending on size -- to distribute to police officers throughout Maryland.

The equipment, developed by Owings Mills-based Aether Systems Inc., provides wireless access to other officers and to background checks, license plate checks and other functions performed by their laptop computers.

Baltimore City is the only department in Maryland that uses the handheld devices, but more than 1,000 departments nationwide use them, Aether officials said.

Howard County Police Pfc. James King demonstrated the wireless technology yesterday at the I-95 rest stop. About 75 percent of Howard's squad cars have laptop computers, but the department does not have handheld devices.

"It would be a nice addition to our arsenal," King said to Allen Carr, business development director for Aether.

Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay, who attended yesterday's demonstration, said he would consider buying the devices after learning more about them.

"Law enforcement agencies have been islands unto themselves," Bennett said. "We've all come to realize within the past five or six years that we can't do business like that. We have to find ways to work and play well together."

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