Houston First Responders to Go Interoperable

By Matthew Harwood

The city of Houston's first responders are about to receive an all-digital emergency radio system that will allow city police, firefighters, public works officials and engineers to speak directly to one another for the first time.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Houston City Council will agree as early as next week to award a $107 million contract to Motorola that will:

"... mean more than 10,000 new field radios for police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and utility workers. It will be the largest single purchase of equipment in Houston's history. The goal is to phase in the project, which will operate on a 700 MHz system, over the next four years, said Richard Lewis, the city's director for Information Technology."

Previously, city agencies used different radio systems. To speak with each other, first responders from different departments had to rely on inefficient patches, according to Dennis Storemski, director of Public Safety and Homeland Security for Houston.

Storemski says the new system will provide "complete interoperability" between first responders.

Establishing interoperable communications has been on the national radar for more than a decade. According to Security Management Assistant Editor Joseph Straw:

Interoperability has been a concern since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when emergency supervisors from other jurisdictions were forced to communicate by running notes. Later, the 9/11 Commission concluded that 121 of the 343 New York City firefighters killed in the Twin Towers on 9-11 might have escaped, but they did not hear orders to evacuate because of incompatibility between their radios and those of other agencies.

To help states and municipalities pay for such systems, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has awarded billions of dollars of grants, according to the Chronicle. DHS will provide $50 million in 2009 to help provide first responders with interoperable communications.

Houston, itself, has received $40 million in federal grants to help pay for the new digital and interoperable radio system.

Mayor Bill White says the system will guarantee the city's first responders can speak to each other during an emergency.

"This will make our law enforcement and public works emergency functions much more reliable as we grow in the future," said White. "If we had done nothing, police or fire ran the risk of getting the equivalent of a busy signal over the next decade."


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