Nebraska law enforcement and emergency management officials are working to implement a new, statewide, $17.3 million communications system. To a degree, it’s understandable that they’ve run into some complications.
Any large system of high-tech equipment and software these days will involve a learning curve for users. Something as complex as the new digital system will have glitches that need to be identified and remedied.
As problems arise, training is adjusted to address them. An example: An emergency button on a state trooper’s cruiser failed to operate because the trooper didn’t plug in a shoulder mike properly.
When South Dakota made the change a while back, it took eight years for all the bugs to be worked out.
There’s also the expense involved in making the switch. Many local agencies at this point can’t afford the costs. As a result, the system currently is available to 12 state agencies, the Nebraska Public Power District and one sheriff’s office, in Lincoln County. As a stopgap, the sheriff’s departments in Lancaster and Buffalo Counties both issued radios to local state troopers so the agencies can talk to each other.
All that still doesn’t relieve the state of its obligation to iron out the kinks as quickly as possible.
Since March, more than 480 “problem reports,” large and small, have been filed involving incidents stemming from communication problems. Recent reporting by World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel found “dozens of reports of garbled messages, ‘busy’ signals when contacting dispatchers or other troopers, and a lack of radio signals.”
The 14-hour standoff last June with a gunman who was holding a drug store owner hostage in Alliance involved especially serious problems. Multiple communication problems arose for law enforcement officers during that incident. Some troopers had to resort to communicating by personal cellphones. At one point, messages were sent to the command post by messengers literally running with information.
During the Alliance standoff, gunshots wounded three law enforcement officers as well as the hostage, Chas Lierk, who escaped. The gunman, Andres “Andy” Gonzalez, was killed when troopers stormed the building. The injuries didn’t necessarily result from the communications woes, but the incident does illustrate the need for Nebraska to solve as many of these communication problems as soon as possible. Life-and-death situations are involved.
Col. David Sankey, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, points to improvements being made on an ongoing basis. “Sankey emphasized that trooper safety is the patrol’s utmost concern,” Hammel reported, “and that every reported problem with the new radio system is tracked down and addressed.”
The State Patrol has made considerable progress, Sankey says, through additional training and upgrading equipment. Twenty-nine faulty radio antennas have been replaced.
No one denies that the old analog radio system, with its roots in 1950s technology, had its problems, including dead spots and a lack of “interoperability” (the ability of different agencies to communicate with one another). An irony, of course, is that major problems with interoperability are still occurring, as the Alliance situation illustrated.
The State Patrol’s Sankey says, “The new system is working. It’s new and it’s change, and we have to learn how to use it. We’ll work out the bugs.”
For the sake of law enforcement and emergency management personnel across the state, that needs to be accomplished as soon as possible.