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BATON ROUGE -- Louisiana is better prepared today to cope with emergencies thanks to an improved statewide communications plan, officials said.
That plan is a change in radio communications that will allow all first-responders in the state to talk to one another.
The switchover, from the 800 MHz system to 700 MHz, began in January 2007, and should be up and running statewide by next summer, said Brant Mitchell, assistant deputy director of interoperability with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Right now, the new system is operational in all parishes south of Interstate 10 and in southeast Louisiana, Mitchell said.
"If you look at the major disasters of the last 10 years, the No. 1 problem in all of them was that police, fire and emergency agencies were not able to talk to one another," State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said.
The push to change is both national and local.
Nationally, the initiative dates back to the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Locally, hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 prompted the change.
Those emergencies revealed a lack of interoperable communications, which hindered disaster assistance.
The key word is interoperability.
Interoperability allows public safety agencies to communicate on radios within and across agencies and jurisdictions.
The state's move to a 700 MHz radio system is the main unifying factor, Mitchell said. The new system will allow first-responders all over the state to talk to one another and respond faster and more efficiently to disasters.
The 800 MHz analog wireless communication system is more than a decade old, Mitchell said, and the manufacturer, Motorola, no longer upgrades the technology.
The 700 MHz system has a greater bandwidth capability and can support more public safety radio voice traffic. The frequency also has space that allows agencies to transmit data and imagery such as fingerprints and warrants, Mitchell said.
If there was a major explosion in Bunkie, Edmonson said, and the local agencies there didn't have 700 MHz radios, State Police could have 200 of the radios there in about 90 minutes.
There are more than 31,000 of the 700 MHz radios in operation across the state today, Mitchell said, compared to about 9,700 of the older radios.
Mitchell said the state's new radio plan makes for 95 percent radio reliability statewide for mobile, hand-held 700 MHz radios. And for radios mounted in vehicles, the reliability is nearly 100 percent, he said.
State Police also have two mobile radio towers with 700 MHz capabilities that can be moved anywhere in the state, Mitchell said.
That means that if winds topple a radio tower during a disaster, a mobile 700 MHz radio tower can be dispatched, he said.
There were 35 radio towers operable in the state in the 1980s, Edmonson said. But by the time the state interoperability project is completed next summer, there will be 120 radio towers.
In September 2005, Louisiana partnered with the federal government and local agencies to secure funding for the initial implementation of a statewide communications system.
Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco created a Statewide Interoperable Communications System Executive Committee in 2006 to oversee communications improvements.
Edmondson said Gov. Bobby Jindal is making sure state interoperability is a top priority by committing significant amounts of general fund money to the switchover.
Mitchell said that Jindal asked for $34 million for the interoperability project during the last session; $24 million of that has been approved.
So far, a total of $55 million - from federal recovery money, federal grants and state money - has been spent on infrastructure, radios and maintenance to gain state interoperability, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the idea behind a statewide system focuses on infrastructure - providing 700 MHz capability on radio towers all over the state.
"Hopefully, the local agencies will buy the radios," Mitchell said.
Some law enforcement agencies and parish emergency preparedness offices have switched or are switching to the 700 MHz system while others will not.
But smaller, rural law enforcement agencies and volunteer fire departments will not be left behind, Mitchell said.
State emergency preparedness officials estimate a need for 20,000 portable, hand-held 700 MHz radios for agencies around the state that don't already have them.
Mitchell said it would be impossible for the state to buy radios for all those agencies, but the state will buy as many as possible.
The state already has purchased 28 of the 700 MHz portable, hand-held radios for every parish in the state, Mitchell said, or nearly 1,800 radios.
Those radios cost between $2,500 and $3,000 each.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office is in the middle of switching from its 20-year-old 800 MHz radio system to the statewide 700 MHz system.
That transition is expected to be done by September, said Casey Rayborn Hicks, public information director for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office.
The transition started in April, Hicks said.
The switchover will cost the Sheriff's Office about $1.5 million, she said, half the total price. The rest will be paid for by grant money.
Right now, communication headquarters are at a substation in Central. But that will change soon to the East Baton Rouge Advance Traffic Management Emergency Operations Center on Harding Boulevard, Hicks said.
She said moving from 800 MHz to 700 MHz is analogous to moving from an analog cell phone to a digital one.
"Basically, we are moving from a system that is being supported solely by the Sheriff's Office to a system that is being supported statewide," Hicks said.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said his department already is on the 700 MHz system, but still has 800 MHz capacity.
Wiley said every time the parish was awarded any kind of federal grant or federal homeland security money, his department always used it to help create a 700 MHz radio system.
"A lot of police agencies and fire departments took that money and purchased items that had nothing to do with interoperability. I call those 'stocking stuffers,' " Wiley said.
"Some of us kept an eye on the ball and used the money for interoperability, so my department is ready to go," he said.
The Louisiana Sheriff's Association, through grant work done by the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office, bought a 700 MHz mobile radio tower, Wiley said. Although it is housed in Ascension Parish, it can be used anywhere in the state, Wiley said.
Unlike East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes, Livingston Parish has no immediate plans to switch completely to a 700 MHz radio system.
Jason Ard, chief of operations for the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office, said his department currently uses a 450 MHz radio system and is happy with the way it works.
Ronnie Cotton, 911 director of Livingston Parish, said parish agencies have 700 MHz portable radios the state bought for them to use in an emergency.
"So we have interoperability when we need it. We just don't want to use that system day to day," he said. "We will stick with the 450 MHz system. That system worked good for us during the hurricane."
Mitchell said it's OK that not every police agency or fire department has switched to the 700 MHz system.
In some cases, it might be prohibitive for those agencies to buy the necessary equipment, he said. Also, those agencies already have invested money in existing radio systems, Mitchell said.
As long as rural and small departments have radio contact with command and control centers - agencies that are on the 700 MHz system - then the smaller users are considered part of the state interoperability system, Mitchell said.