Monday, November 3, 2008

Allowing Our Public Safety Departments To Talk To Each Other

Attending a recent forum at the Woodcrest fire department reminded me that one of the experiences I have most enjoyed as State Representative during the past two years has been the role of Vice-Chairman and ranking Republican on the House of Representative’s Homeland Security Committee.

When designing the new house committee system, house leadership structured the system so that members of the committees could really focus on specialized areas of committee work. They did this by giving the committees both appropriation and policy oversight in their respective areas. It has been exciting to serve as Vice-Chairman of a committee where I could specialize in an area in which there is a core purpose for government involvement.

In this role, a little over a year ago I joined Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Robert Doke and a delegation of state government and firefighting officials in visiting the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There we met with FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison. Administrator Paulson was complimentary of the manner in which Oklahoma officials have handled past emergencies and is supportive of the efforts made in developing additional emergency readiness.

One of the reasons for meeting with Paulison related to developing a truly interoperable statewide emergency communications system to allow officials in different agencies to communicate with one another. This issue has without doubt been the most comprehensive and the most controversial issue that our committee has considered in my term as Vice-Chair.

The development of this system took on added importance after the 2006 Oklahoma wildfires. During this emergency, responders had enormous difficulty communicating and organizing an effective response because there is no statewide system through which responders from one county or region can communicate with another. Law enforcement would also greatly benefit from a system that would allow the highway patrol to communicate with local officers when responding to incidents.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has provided nearly $30 million to Oklahoma in federal funds to set up the framework for a statewide 800mhz system along the Interstate 44 corridor which would cover the state’s most populous areas. However, the state would need $130 million more in order to cover the entire state. While millions have been spent on the current system, it appears as if the control of that system is limited to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. This risks the defeat the obvious purpose of a statewide system, which should be to allow all police and fire entities to talk to each other. It is difficult to justify why so many millions of dollars have been spent on a project that does not directly accomplish the main purpose for which it should be intended.

I believe that new options should be considered for a more cost-effective, internet-based communications system similar to OneNet, the system the State Regents for Higher Education use to provide high-speed communications to Oklahoma entities such as public schools, colleges, universities and local, tribal, state and federal governments. OneNet utilizes fiber optics and wireless technologies to transmit video, voice and data throughout Oklahoma.

This type of system would allow rural Logan County volunteer fire departments such as Woodcrest who can not afford the expensive 800mhz systems to communicate with each other and others with much less expensive off the shelf products thus saving local departments a lot of much needed funding.

I was pleased to co-sponsored a bill authored by Representative Charles Key that would have begun the process of developing this a more modern streamlined system that takes advantage of new technologies. While the Key bill is was unsuccessful, it is clear that more state officials are beginning to get on board with the plan to develop a less expensive, but truly interoperable system. This important reform can’t happen soon enough, as I believe millions of taxpayer dollars would be saved.

As your State Representative I remain committed to working for the enactment of these types of common sense reforms.

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