Oregon’s emergency radio system has fallen into disrepair and is outdated. Now the question remains whether a scaled-back, repair-focused version of the original $600 million program to build a new system can produce the needed changes with less than half the money that could cost the financially strapped state nearly $600 million.
The state is moving ahead with a scaled back plan called the State Radio Project that is smaller in scope and budget than its predecessor, the Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network (OWIN). The goals of the project remain the same: to meet the federal narrowbanding mandate and improve the communications of public entities in areas throughout the state.
The project has been re-engineered, assigned a new schedule and budget, and staffed to better fit Oregon’s fiscal constraints and public safety emergency service needs, according to Lissa Willis, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s State Radio Project. The Oregon Legislature authorized the revised project in June 2011.
Funding for the radio project does not involve any new money and the project is proceeding with funds reduced from those previously authorized. For the 2011-2013 biennium, the project estimate is $110.5 million. When added to OWIN funds previously spent and future anticipated funding, the budget totals $209.4 million from inception.
That is more than $300 million less than the original cost proposed for OWIN, which was initiated in 2005 when the state’s emergency system was found to be in disrepair. A major benefit of the project will still be its role in consolidating existing communications systems. Various statewide police and correctional agencies, as well as the Oregon Department of Forestry, currently have separate radio systems that cause various communications inefficiencies.
“I know of no other state in at least the 10 western states that is in such a dire situation from a communications standpoint,” said Jeff Johnson, the current CEO for the Western Fire Chiefs Association, covering 10 western states in the United States.
Organizers are now focused on repairs and modernization, so the project is modernizing the existing radio systems for the Department of Transportation and the Oregon State Police to create an integrated statewide network and to allow for shared efficiencies with the Oregon Departments of Corrections and Forestry, Willis said. The project is on track to meet the federal narrowbanding deadline of Jan. 1, 2013.
The tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 certainly brought to the national conscience the challenges with emergency communications in the United States. In 2005 the State Legislature passed House Bill 2101 to consolidate and upgrade the radio systems used by a number of agencies.
Lawmakers also called for the creation of an interoperable communications infrastructure that would allow all state, local, federal and tribal public safety agencies, the department of forestry and more to share information instantly.
The need for a comprehensive system was further established when Oregon experienced its own statewide communications breakdown in December 2007. That’s when a couple of major storms with hurricane-force winds knocked out 9-1-1 systems around the state. Local police and fire departments were largely unable to communicate with each other and special trucks had to be brought in to help public safety communicate with the governor’s office. In some areas ham radios were the most reliable source of communications over several hours.
“We originally envisioned Oregon replacing its existing system with a single radio system. The first step is to make the comparatively minor step of interoperability for local responders,” said Johnson, who is also a past chair of the State Interoperability Executive Council and a longtime fire chief for the city of Tualatin.
There are 48 individual communications programs used by agencies around the state, which has resulted in extra costs for taxpayers, Johnson said. “There is a potential significant savings for taxpayers because state agencies will be able to share towers, haulers and other infrastructure,” Johnson said. The problem is the statewide communications system is so outdated because it has been neglected for over 30 years. Johnson, who has experience working with other states and understanding their public safety communications systems, said Oregon is behind just about every state in the union. California, for example, has gateway challenges; Washington doesn’t have a single system throughout the state but does have systems that are strong, robust and connected.
Willis noted that the revised radio project has limited budget for interoperability equipment. Interested parties are working through the State Interoperability Executive Council and the State Radio User Group to foster interoperability between state and local systems.
“We’re working with our partner agencies through the State Interoperability Executive Council and the State Radio User Group to foster interoperability between state and local systems and maximize the use of those funds,” she said.
There is also a federal requirement that Oregon and all other states must adhere to by 2013. After 15 years, numerous petitions for reconsideration and other challenges, the final FCC plan to increase the available spectrum in the VHF and UHF land mobile bands was finalized in 2007. Then all current licensees must be fully operational on 12.5 kHz equipment, according to the FCC. It will also be necessary for all states to increase available channels by creating new ones between existing channels.
The new Oregon project will build a trunked, two-way radio system in a “horseshoe” area that includes the Willamette Valley, north to the Columbia River Gorge, east to the Dalles and south to Bend. Trunking will improve channel access and efficiency in these high radio traffic areas, Willis noted. “The aging analog microwave system will be replaced and upgraded to digital,” Willis said. “Project staff is visiting and assessing sites to develop plans and specifications.”
Much of the planning and a small amount of construction have begun to implement the State Radio Project. A 160-foot tower was constructed and raised late in 2010 at the state’s Jordan Butte site. That is just one example of project leaders applying internal controls and independent quality assurance measures so a fail-safe radio network can be completed.
Much of the planning and some initial construction have begun to make the State Radio Project a reality. Out of its 20 work order contracts, the radio project has completed minor improvements on 11 sites and full builds on eight. One site is currently in construction and several more are anticipated to begin construction in the next few months.
The intent is good, but there are questions as to how the project’s goals can be completed on time and on budget. Program proponents are working with a new legislature and a new governor in John Kitzhaber, who served two previous terms as Oregon governor and held the office when OWIN was established, before the scaled-back plan was created. However, the financial landscape has changed in the last few years. The state’s executive and legislative branches could have a say in the scope of the project going forward. As is usually the case, the project now has come down to a conversation about money and funding.
Oregon is experiencing a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit that it is attempting to address through its legislature, a result of several factors, notably lower property tax revenue income. The financial struggles of the state are not unique – states like California, Illinois and New Jersey, for example, are reportedly in worse shape, but they don’t have the same level of emergency communications challenges.
Ultimately there are expected to be more than 150 communications sites that will require various levels of upgrades and modifications to bring the state’s communication system up to the preferred level. “We will have some brand new sites and some will be upgrades to existing sites.
There is a tremendous amount of work that goes on to prepare sites – negotiating contracts to share maintenance with private and public entities, for example,” Willis said.
By sharing resources, the state will be able to cut down on capital costs, Johnson said. States like Michigan, Wyoming and Alabama have created statewide enterprise systems that may have anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 individual subscribers (agencies and municipalities) that pay a fee to help fund the program. “You have a situation where the system is expensive to replace because nothing has been done for 30 years,” Johnson said. “It’s the equivalent of a car owner not changing the oil and then getting sticker shock because the car needs a new engine. It’s time for us to pay for the decisions of the past. “If we delay this decision any longer then the price will go up,” Johnson said. “The more indecisive we look, the more cushion and cost our vendors will build into their price.”
There are admittedly concerns among the public for a big capital spending program represented by the State Radio Project. This is a technically complex project with wide-ranging goals, each critical in establishing and sustaining a viable emergency communications system for the state and its neighbors. Mike Scott has contributed to more than 70 newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He lives in Waterford, Mich., and can be reached at Mas1774@yahoo.com. Photos courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation.