Federal grant money will not likely cover radio purchase


Millions of dollars in Homeland Security grants were up for grabs this week when officials across Colorado met in Denver to decide how to allocate the federal money.

Moffat County will see a portion of that money in some form, but the county's emergency manager, Clyde Anderson, doesn't expect to get funds for the radio equipment he had hoped for.

Agencies in Colorado are working to plug into the state's growing 800-megahertz radio network. Acquiring new radios for local law enforcement is a high priority, Anderson said.

The upgrades will be pricey.

"Just for law enforcement in Moffat County, it's more than a quarter of a million dollars," Anderson said.

The cost includes purchasing portable radios and car radios for the Craig Police Department and the Moffat County Sheriff's Office.

The upgrades are necessary, Anderson said, because local law enforcement relies on the Colorado State Patrol for its dispatching. The State Patrol's Regional Dispatch Center in Craig will switch from VHF radio communications systems to the statewide digital trunk radio system, which broadcasts in the 800-megahertz range. When that happens, local law enforcement, fire services and ambulances will have to switch over, too.

The alternative would be to establish a local dispatch center in Craig, but that would be even more costly.

"If you think radios are expensive, consider the cost of building our own dispatch center and staffing it," Anderson said.

He had hoped to get the radios through the 2004 Homeland Security Grant Program.

Last year's Homeland Security grants provided Moffat County about $273,000 for infrastructure upgrades like security systems at the Craig Water Plant.

The federal government set aside $2.2 billion for the 2004 grants. More than $37 million of that was allocated to Colorado.

But the application process has changed. Emergency managers in Colorado counties no longer submit a single grant application on behalf of the county. Instead, the state was divided into nine emergency management regions following a mandate from the governor. In the regional structure, the counties within the region meet to decide on regional priorities. The Northwest Region consists of 10 counties, including Moffat County.

Balancing priorities among the counties has been a challenge, Anderson said.

The radios Anderson was requesting are far enough down on the priority list that there is little hope that the money will be granted.

"The bottom line is that the requests exceed the amount of money available," Anderson said. After reviewing the requests other regions submitted, he estimated the difference between available money and grant requests was more than $100 million.

"We certainly have more requests than money we're able to dole out," said Patti Micciche, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

The 2004 Grant Review Committee met in Denver this week to listen to presentations from each entity requesting funds. In addition to the nine groups of counties that applied, many state agencies asked for money, too.

Some of those applicants include Colorado State University and other colleges, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Micciche listened to some of the proceedings, and she said communications equipment was a priority for many of the applicants.

"Interoperable communications is an issue statewide," Micciche said.

"Interoperability," is a popular term among law enforcement, emergency management and public safety officials. In essence, it describes the goal of establishing a uniform medium to facilitate interagency communication. In the event of a large-scale public health crisis, police and sheriff's officers, fire departments and ambulances could communicate effectively on the state's 800-megahertz system.

The need for interoperability came to light during the Columbine High School shooting, when numerous agencies were working together, Micciche said.

"It became very clear, very early, that they were not on the same system," Micciche said.

Anderson spoke about the goal of interoperability.

"The ideal situation would be for every vehicle in the county to have exactly identical radios programmed in the same way and every portable radio programmed in exactly the same way," Anderson said.

If a large emergency arose, Anderson could issue a directive for all agencies to coordinate through "zone eight, channel three," for instance. And that channel would be the same in Craig as it would be in southwestern corner of the state, or anywhere else.

It's not that the radios themselves would possess such incredible range, but repeater towers throughout the state could route the traffic over large distances.

"I've had people sitting in my office talking to Grand Junction on portable radios," Anderson said.

The 800-megahertz switch will come, but local law enforcement officials don't know when.

Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said the department has been trying to set money aside, but the budget hasn't allowed for it. He doesn't know when the State Patrol will begin using the new technology, but assumes there will be time to integrate before police are left holding the old radios.

The 800-megahertz technology itself is not something Moffat County Sheriff Buddy Grinstead is sold on.

"I'm not clear in my mind that this is the best thing for Moffat County," Grinstead said.

"I can show you a half dozen people who say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread and another half dozen who say, 'Don't waste your money.'"

Vanatta said there was no consensus in law enforcement about the technology, good or bad.

The statewide system will ensure coverage along all highways in the state, but Grinstead wonders if the radios will work in the vastness of Moffat County, where much of the land is nowhere near a highway.

"If we need repeater sites, who will pay?" Grinstead said. "I feel (State Patrol) should, because we pay them a fee to dispatch for us."

The cost of dispatching services last year was $49,000, Grinstead said.

Another concern is the timeline. Grinstead said he does not know when the new system will be in place and how much time will be given for local agencies to upgrade their radio equipment.

Kathy Jameson is the State Patrol's communications director. She oversees the state's five regional dispatch centers, including the one in Craig.

Local agencies look to the State Patrol for guidance about the project's timeline, but the State Patrol is a customer of the Colorado Division of Telecommunications, which oversees the project.

The timeline depends on telecommunications funding, Jameson said.

The project was slated for completion by 2006. In 2002 and 2003, the funding evaporated in the face of state budget woes.

The Front Range is already on the new system, but the Western Slope awaits completion, Jameson said.

The project was divided into phases, which had their own individual deadlines. But the completion dates were pushed back when the money was not available.

Moffat County was supposed to be on the new system in 2004.

Whatever the final completion date, Jameson offered assurances that local agencies will be given time to buy new radios and get connected.

"It's not like we'll cut them off," Jameson said.

The State Patrol would continue to dispatch for the agencies while they worked to upgrade their equipment.

"If that took one year or two years, we could work with that until all agencies are on board."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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