LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - With many police and fire departments
across the state unable to communicate with each other via radio,
there is little debate that Nebraska needs to build a statewide
communications system.
Problem is finding the $90 million to $100 million to put it
together.
"That's going to be the challenge - how we can afford this in
this financially difficult time?" said Lt. Gov. Dave Heineman.
The State Patrol and many other agencies built their radio
systems more than 40 years ago.
Since then, better technology has been developed using different
frequencies, but not all departments have had radio upgrades. Thus,
many departments cannot communicate with each other.
In Madison County, for example, 19 public safety agencies use
seven radio frequencies.
Patrol Col. Tom Nesbitt said the radio problems are a safety
hazard for troopers, particularly the "dead spots" - where
low-frequency radio waves used by older systems fail to negotiate
dips in terrain.
In such areas, Nesbitt said, troopers sometimes hesitate to stop
suspects for fear of being caught in a dangerous situation without
access to help.
The patrol equips troopers with cellular phones and - in Omaha
and Lincoln - portable radios that are compatible with local police
frequencies.
The communication void manifested itself on Aug. 13, when an
inmate escaped from two Saline County deputies who were returning
him to the State Penitentiary from a court appearance.
"We had Lincoln police, Saline County, the State Patrol and the
Department of Corrections - and nobody could talk to each other,"
Nesbitt said. "That could have been a real serious situation."
State lawmakers passed a bill in 2002 that created a
first-of-its-kind partnership to buy the system.
The measure empowered the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority
or other entity to issue bonds to buy the system.
The cost of paying off the bonds would be split among the state
and local police agencies, based on how many radios they have.
Cities and counties would not have to participate in the system.
While the state would still have to pay part of the cost of the
system, much of it would be shifted to local taxpayers.
Nesbitt is heading a board appointed by Gov. Mike Johanns to
figure out how to build and pay for the system.
For their part, many cities and counties are struggling with
tight budgets and would be hard-pressed to find the money to pay
for the system.
"We'd have to certainly see where it would hit the budget,"
said David Springer interim city administrator for Grand Island.
Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska
Municipalities, said building a new system is essential.
"Yes, localities are financially strapped, but ... public
safety folks have to be able to talk to each other," she said.
"They just have to."
Heineman, Nebraska's director of homeland security, said the
federal money earmarked for homeland security could be used by
cities and counties to buy radios.
But under present rules, it could not be used to pay for the
estimated $75 million worth of communications towers needed to link
the network.
Johanns has asked federal Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
to consider allowing the state to use future homeland security
money to help pay for the towers.
"We're working hard to try to get the feds to agree to let us
use that money," Nesbitt said.
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On the Net:
State of Nebraska: http://www.state.ne.us/

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)