By Jay Gallagher
Journal Albany bureau 12-12-07
ALBANY — The first phase of the state’s planned $2.1 billion communications system for police, firefighters and other emergency responders has flunked its first test, sparking some concerns about the viability of the project.
“Are we concerned? Absolutely,” said state Homeland Security Secretary Michael Balboni. “This has to work.”
Balboni said a test this summer and fall of the system in Erie and Chautauqua counties disclosed some flaws in training to use the equipment as well as “some gaps” in the signal.
But others say that the failure of a network test in the first phase was to be expected, and there’s no reason to think it won’t proceed as planned.
“There were problems identified. We’re dealing with them,” Larry Toole, the manager of the project for the state Office for Technology, said at a recent meeting of the task force that is overseeing the plan.
The system in Erie and Cattaraugus counties in the extreme western part of the state is a trial run that will be used to decide whether to build the network across the rest of the state over the next few years. Another test is set for February with a decision on whether to proceed likely by late April, officials said.
The state last year signed a contract with M/A-Com to build a wireless-communication system that will allow emergency responders to talk to each other all over the state.
The plan calls for building as many as 1,000 relay stations around the state — as many as possible on existing towers and buildings, but also some on newly built towers.
The plan is an outgrowth of concerns first voiced by the State Police about 20 years ago that troopers patrolling remote parts of the state were sometimes out of radio contact with other emergency personnel.
And the issue of emergency workers not being able to talk to each other was driven home to many people on Sept. 11, 2001 when police and firefighters responding to the World Trade Center attacks couldn’t communicate with each other via radios.
The project is to be paid for in part with some of the proceeds from the $1.20-per-month surcharge the state imposes on all cell-phone bills, although a state Budget Division spokesman acknowledged that the source of all the money needed to build the system hasn’t been identified yet.
Also not yet clear is how much local governments will have to pay for new radios to hook into the system. While some existing equipment likely can be used, some departments will probably have to purchase new ones, officials said.
Under the terms of the contract, the M/A-COM doesn’t get any money until the Erie-Chautauqua phase of the project is accepted by the state.
“I’m not concerned (by the test failure) because of the way the procurement was set up,” said Assembly Governmental Operations Committee Chairwoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, Oneida County. “We are protected in that respect. If it doesn’t work, there will be a decision made it’s a no-go.”
A spokesman for M/A-COM, a Lowell, Mass.-based telecommunications company, referred requests for comment to the state Office for Technology.
Even if the M/A-COM project flops, it’s important for the state to keep money set aside for another wireless project, said an official of the state Association of Fire Chiefs.
“We’re concerned that the state continue to recognize the value of a statewide wireless system,” said chiefs’ association executive director Thomas LaBelle. “We want to make sure they don’t take away this huge amount of money and use it on something else” if the M/A-COM project is scrapped.
Besides the technical issues, officials said the key to making the project work is training for the emergency responders who will use it.
“I have tried to impress upon the (Office for Technology) staff for many years that had to have outreach that would really educate the first responders,” Destito said. “I think they’ve come a long way…The first responders really did not understand and some still don’t understand how important the statewide wireless network is when there is a true disaster.”