Many Nebraskans are understandably warning that unless things are fixed, “it” will happen — and that we’re lucky it hasn’t happened so far.
“It” being a state trooper or local law enforcement officer killed due to the troubling failures still afflicting Nebraska’s emergency radio system.
No one disputes that it made sense for Nebraska to switch from 1950s-style radios to modern communication technology. The “dead spots” under the old system included about 20 percent of the state.
And there’s no doubt that change on this scale – $17 million in sophisticated new equipment, requiring considerable technical training and procedure-setting — involves a learning curve. The system went into service last summer after a two-year rollout.
The State Patrol leadership has made clear it has received the message that Nebraskans are concerned and want things fixed.
But all that said, the fact remains that disturbing problems continue to erupt as State Patrol and law enforcement officers have not been able to communicate during several serious incidents.
Members of the Nebraska Legislature have expressed concern. State Sen. Kate Sullivan said she heard many complaints about how radio problems hindered efforts to battle wildfires in western Nebraska last summer. Sen. John Harms said the Appropriations Committee is concerned and is requiring state authorities to file a report explaining the problem and how to address it.
“We’re not quitting until we get this done, I promise you that,” Harms said. “Unless we solve this soon, we’re going to get our law enforcement officers, our firemen, trapped.”
World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel noted last December that some 481 reports of radio problems were filed during a nine-month period during 2012. This past week, he reported that some troopers said they don’t trust the system because of its history of failures during emergency situations.
The State Troopers Association of Nebraska has filed a formal grievance calling on the new radio system to be scrapped. The complaint says multiple incidents have occurred where troopers found the communication system inadequate. The troopers association has since offered to suspend its labor grievance and work out its dispute with the state informally if the union can get more details about the radio system’s problems, coverage and capabilities.
Among serious incidents over the past year in which radio problems hindered the response:
>> A 14-hour standoff last June with a gunman who was holding a drug store owner hostage in Alliance.
>> A Feb. 13 shootout with two murder suspects that left one deputy sheriff wounded.
>> A December incident near Plainview, Neb., involving a distraught man who rammed a trooper’s cruiser with a tractor before being shot and arrested.
State government purchased the $17 million communication system as the most cost-effective option; local governments were invited to use their own funds to buy new radio equipment separately.
Local law enforcement officials and the Nebraska League of Municipalities have said the cost is out of reach for many local departments. They warned that moving ahead with the system carried the risk of major communications problems.
No Nebraskan wants a law enforcement officer to lose his life because radio equipment failed to work properly. That makes it all the more urgent that the State Patrol leadership and other executive branch leaders get moving to solve this disturbing failure in Nebraska’s law enforcement capability.