LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - They are on the front lines when lives hang in the balance. But some emergency responders are suffering from a communications breakdown. Dispatchers, fire and EMS are all supposed to be able to talk to one another. But 10 years after 9/11, a WAVE 3 Troubleshooter investigation has uncovered that not all agencies are on the same page.
When blue lights flash and sirens scream, dispatchers inside the MetroSafe Communications Center in Jefferson County are right there. If there were a terrorist attack in our area, MetroSafe director Doug Hamilton said his center would be the central command.
The MetroSafe Communications Center is a product of 9/11 when a disconnect among dispatchers, police and fire at the World Trade Center cost lives. After the terrorist attack, the federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving 911 communications at the local level. But 10 years later, our statewide system is not where it needs to be.
"I think some communities are running out of time," said Gene Kiser, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security.
Kiser said first responders have less than 15 months to complete an FCC mandated switch to digital narrow band radios which take up less air space. Agencies that don't make the switch by the January 1, 2013 deadline will face thousands in fines and even worse, their old analog radios will be obsolete. Jefferson County has made the digital transition, but Hamilton said many smaller counties in our area have not.
"They've got a big problem," Hamilton said.
A problem because the federal money used to pay for the digital transition is drying up. This year the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, the main source of money for emergency communications equipment, saw a 58% cut to its federal funding. Kiser said that falls far short of the requests from local agencies.
"303 applications that totaled $28.8 million," Kiser said. "We have $4.1 million. So yes there is going to be rejection letters."
Those rejection letters will leave some rural departments with no way to pay for the required equipment upgrades.
"We're fighting over nickels and dimes now," said Les Bandy, deputy director for emergency services in Bullitt County. "And with that the key issue is where do I get the money to make that happen?"
Although Bandy said Bullitt County has been able to scrape together enough money to update its radio system, he is in touch with other agencies that have not, many of whom were part of a first responder summit organized by MetroSafe aimed at teaching the technology to those that don't have it.
"It's really about providing like we do every day the who, what, when, where and why," Debbie Fox, MetroSafe deputy director told the group.
In the case of a disaster, MetroSafe wants its neighbors to know how to use the new equipment so it can coordinate a regional response. But even the reach of MetroSafe goes so far. According to Hamilton, once you get into fringe areas there is you run the risk that our radio system may not work," Hamilton said.
And a federal grant to buy more equipment to extend the signals beyond Jefferson County's neighboring areas was turned down. Leaving gaps in the region's most advanced 911 technology amidst dwindling resources to patch the holes in case of emergency.
Another concern is that the new high tech equipment is all computer based and has a much shorter shelf life than the old stuff. Hamilton said that means in seven to ten years even MetroSafe's radios, which cost $14 million, will have to be replaced.
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