Saturday, February 22, 2003

Can you hear me yet?

County's new radio system is lagging


Tom "Duct Tape" Ridge wants everybody to get ready.

The Department of Homeland Security secretary visited Cincinnati this week to urge families to make a communication plan. Know how to reach loved ones if terrorists attack.

Too bad Hamilton County's family of police, fire and rescue departments can't do that. At least not yet.

The county's $30 million emergency communication system won't be up and running until early summer. The system has a wonderful feature. Its digital radios can link every emergency worker in the county.

Firefighters at opposite ends of the county or across the street can talk to each other.

Right now, they can't.

Until summer rolls around, the county's municipalities must try to communicate the old-fashioned way. Their radios are tuned to an antiquated system where everyone doesn't speak the same language and countless lives are at risk.

Meanwhile, the county's civilians are supposed to remain calm. Even after hearing Ridge's dire weekly updates.

Last week, he gave the goofy duct tape alert.

This week, it was the Ready Campaign unveiled in Cincinnati. Ridge's announcement even included some words about duct tape.

"Stash away the duct tape. Don't use it."

He must not be much of a handyman. Duct tape has a finite shelf life. Stash it away too long and it turns brittle. Then it's like a politician. Useless.

Work in progress

Plans initially called for the county's new emergency communication system to be operating by spring. But that was before winter struck.

"We have one more tower site to complete in Mount Airy," said Bill Hinkle, county communication director.

"We're running a month or so behind schedule."

So, opening day "looks like it's going to be in June."

Once the system is running "everyone can talk to everybody - assuming they participate."

Participation is a no-brainer. Since 9-11, government agencies should have learned the values of communication.

Still, not every city in the county has signed on. Hinkle mentioned two holdouts: Norwood and St. Bernard.

Getting along

The system proves city and county governments can cooperate. Egos can be put aside. Everyone can work for the common good.

"Cincinnati is building its own system," Hinkle noted. "But it will be compatible. We're even going to share equipment to reduce costs."

But not before summer. Until then, the county's stuck with its old system. That one triggered horror stories of miscommunications following the tornado of April 1999.

"We had people standing on the same street, a block from each other," Hinkle recalled.

"Even though they could see each other, they couldn't talk to each other on their radios."

Hinkle experienced similar problems in Oklahoma City. He went there with other communications experts to coordinate recovery efforts after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.

"All of the resources in the world were coming into Oklahoma City," he remembered.

"But nobody could talk to anyone on their radios. It was a nightmare."

If, God forbid, terrorists ever attack Cincinnati, he fears similar communication breakdowns. He stopped short of predicting a nightmare.

"But it certainly would be difficult."

So, we'll just have to take our chances for a few months. If need be, a system using string and tin cans could be stuck together.

Have to find some way to make use of all that stashed duct tape.

Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail

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