Officials praise Texas' progress on emergency system

AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday touted his state's use of federal homeland security grants to meet the goals of seamless radio interoperability among local and state emergency responders.

Joined here by local and federal officials, the Republican governor said those communication capabilities are critical along the Texas-Mexico border, as well as in emergency situations such as last summer's Panhandle grass fires and the mass evacuations out of Houston during Hurricane Rita.

The Texas Radio Coalition, chaired by Austin's Chief Information Officer Peter Collins, has been working with the state's 24 regional government councils over the last year to meet new communication standards.

"The end goal is for all law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services, and other critical-incident personnel to be able to respond anywhere in Texas and successfully communicate on their radios when they get there," Collins said. "Because of disparate frequency bands and radio system backbone technologies across the state, responders often cannot directly talk with one another."

Technology is not the only issue. Collins said one significant barrier is culture. First responders, typically separated by operations as well as technology, must learn to communicate with each other as a common emergency response team, he said.

Achieving a Level 4 in radio interoperability means that transmissions are being successfully rerouted across the state. Even though agencies have different equipment on different frequencies, many now can communicate. In some areas, including in Austin where emergency responders have been combined in one operational center, the radio interoperability has reached a Level 6.

Observers say that, ultimately, the long-term goal of Texas will be a Level 6 rating, most likely through common translator software that will allow easy coding and decoding of transmissions.

Steve McCraw, who heads the Texas Homeland Security Department, said the state's new interoperability capabilities have significantly improved communication -- especially along the Texas-Mexico border, where communication "dead zones" still existed in some counties.

Since 2003, the federal government has devoted $2 billion to radio interoperability grants. Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, who was on hand for the announcement, praised Texas for its vision to bridge technological differences among emergency responders.

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