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Nancy Smith

Radio System Budget Item a Natural for Public-Safety-Conscious Governor

May 16, 2014 - 6:00pm

Massive technology upgrades are never easy. Ask Jesse Panuccio at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. But they're inevitable in state government, and some are definitely more critical, more massive than others.

Such is the case with an item on this year's budget (2904-A Special categories) -- $1 million appropriated for the Department of Management Services to initiate a business case study on upgrading local and state law enforcement radios.

This a very big deal. It's about life and death. And I'm hopeful Gov. Rick Scott will continue his strong support for public safety, maintaining it as a hallmark of his leadership and keeping this study for Project 25 (P25) -- the path to an upgraded statewide emergency communication system -- in the 2014-2015 fiscal budget.

Right now 20 Florida counties have adopted Project 25, and when all state and local agencies and departments are updated and connected, 20,000 state and local users will be able to communicate seamlessly.

Sheriff Don Eslinger of Seminole County is among the 20 who have moved forward, out of the legacy technology into the new, and he's sold.

"We can communicate as far as our system will carry us now," he told me. "We can talk in real time, we don't have to be patched through to another agency. This saves time, adds clarity and can be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation."

Said Eslinger, "I'm real aware of the budget item and if I could speak to the governor, I would tell him this is a necessary first step. We need to accelerate the upgrade process and this will do it."

Project 25 (P25) is a set of standards for digital radio communications used by federal, state, provincial and local public safety agencies in North America. It enables them to communicate with each other and to coordinate mutual aid response teams in emergencies.

My interest in this is simple: I've come to terms with the changing world we live in.

Florida has to be ready for anything and everything. Dangers aren't restricted to faraway places. In less than two decades the state has changed dramatically, too. Terrorist threats, weather events, regional disasters of every description, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the pervasive poisoning last summer of the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

And here's a scary story: The Capitol Police in Tallahassee had to borrow P25-compliant radios from local law enforcement not long ago, because it uses the old SLERS equipment and couldn't communicate with Tallahassee Police Department or the Leon County Sheriffs Office.

We could have a real emergency at the Capitol one day, and then what?

I want to know the 20,000 men and women standing between us and disaster -- or even the next tragedy on the highway -- have the best equipment they can possibly have to communicate with each other and keep us safe.

A Joint Task Force of Florida agencies that use the existing Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS) met April 8, unanimously supporting upgrading to P25. "The next thing we have to do is develop a business plan we can present to the Legislature to go forward with this," said Lt. Col. Greg Gibson of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, chairman of the task force.

Right now, Gibson explained, users complain that SLERS is pocked with coverage gaps and lacks features and functionality that are an integral part of P25. "The system was built in the '90s, it's served us well and we have nothing to complain about," he said. "But now we need it to do more."

Through Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, the Legislature appropriated $1 million to allow the Department of Management Services (DMS) to hire a third-party group for the study required. That doesn't mean $1 million will be spent; it could be less. It means the money is there if it's needed.

"We'll be asking the third party to follow a very aggressive timeline," Gibson said. "We'll want them to start July 1, 2015, and finish by Dec. 31, 2015."

What lies ahead is a complex integration process. To fully implement the new system, we're looking at a $500 million cost over a 10- to 15-year period. When the business case study -- the study on this year's budget -- is completed, DMS will put out for competitive bids on the job itself.

Why, you ask, do we need a study for a system we're already sold on? First, because a $500 million job is not remotely that simple; and second, because it's called for in the Florida Statutes.

Chapter 287, Procurement of Personal Property and Services, 287.0571(4) reads, "An agency shall complete a business case for any outsourcing project that has an expected cost in excess of $10 million within a single fiscal year. The business case shall be submitted pursuant to s. 216.023." The statute goes on to describe fully what is involved in a study like this.

Here's how DMS sees its projected 7-year timeline for implementing the P25 migration:

  • 2014/2015 business case completed
  • 2015/2016 requirements and procurement
  • 2015/2017 award/negotiations/potential protest
  • 2017/2021 34-year implementation.

It was good to hear Gibson talk about visiting other states to see who has the communication systems that do the best job. He and his board might want to start with Louisiana.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Securitys 2006 National Interoperability Baseline Survey determined that fewer than 9 percent of emergency response agencies in the country were equipped to use real-time, interoperable communications among state and local agencies on adaily basis. It's improving today, but because it takes years to build an effective, seamless system, most states still have a long way to go to reach completion.

Louisiana is an exception.Just six years after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the Bayou State hasachieved one of the most sophisticated levels of communications usage in the nation, all with P25's.

"We can prepare jurisdictions for large-scale events now," said Mark Cooper, director of the Louisiana Governors Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Col. Mike Edmonson, Louisiana State Police superintendent, said this: Whether the law enforcement community is faced with natural or man-made disasters, large-scale events such as Mardi Gras, or a lethal encounter on the side of the road, the most critical component for a successful outcome is the ability to effectively communicate.

Florida has always been a breathtaking but fragile and vulnerable state: We're a peninsula -- hence, our open borders. We're a tourist state with a full-time population of 19 million, we're virtually at sea level and we're a prime hurricane target that, by the way, faces nearly year-round wildfire threats. We have too much water sometimes, too little other times.

I worry about us, and I'm sure Gov. Scott does, too.

I just didn't want him to see this important budget item cross his desk and chance he might mistake it for pork. This is a sprat to catch a mackerel -- $1 million to hook a $500 million fish and bring it skillfully into the boat.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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