In Oregon, Budgeting and Politics for a Proposed Interoperable Radio System

Buried deep inside the proposed state budget is a public safety communication network that would cost an eye-popping $665 million, or about $200 for every man, woman and child in the state.

The "Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network" is envisioned as a sophisticated network of towers and equipment to enable all public safety responders --state, federal, city, county and tribal --to communicate by radio anywhere in the state.

Oregon's upgrade, backed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, would cost far more than the systems that a dozen other states have built. Only New York spent more --and per person, New York's $1.2 billion system cost less.

Utah, which is nearly as big as Oregon, spent about $70 million on its public safety radio network that debuted in 2000.

Oregon's $665 million plan --crafted primarily by a Virginia consulting firm --calls for more coverage, more towers, higher system capacity and newer technology than most other states have sprung for.

Why Oregon needs to spend so much has yet to be spelled out for lawmakers or taxpayers. The consultant, Federal Engineering, has provided sparse detail about the $665 million cost.

That did not stop the governor from putting nearly $500 million of state borrowing into his proposed 2007-09 budget to build the radio network.

Lawmakers are just beginning to question whether the state should spend so much.

"It is being somewhat rammed down people's throats without a lot of vetting," says Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, the Revenue Committee chairman.

The most remarkable feature of the system would be its "interoperability" --a tongue-twisting way to say that any public safety officer with a radio could talk to any other safety officer in the state.

Under the current system, a state trooper and a city police officer chasing a suspect down the same highway can't talk to each other because they use different frequencies or their radios have different manufacturers.

Residents of Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties --42 percent of Oregon's population --haven't heard horror stories, however. Their police, fire and sheriff's officers have interoperability with other local responders in the three-county area.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is encouraging all states to establish interoperable systems. Most states have built some form of the network or are planning one.

Oregon has no choice but to improve its public safety radio systems.

New federal requirements mean the state --along with most of Oregon's smaller police, sheriff's and fire departments --must get new radio systems for first responders by 2012. They must switch to narrower frequencies so more users can join the public airways.

In addition, the four state-owned public safety networks --one each for state police, highway workers, corrections officers and foresters --are falling apart, according to the Federal Engineering firm. Towers are rusting, wires are fraying, bunkers that house equipment are crumbling and some equipment is too outdated to find replacement parts.

The state could spend $150 million to $350 million to bring the old radio networks up to snuff. But it would end up with the same limitations public safety officials face today --no interoperability, spotty coverage in some parts of the state and no ability to transmit data.

Two years ago, the Legislature unanimously agreed that Oregon needs an advanced statewide radio network. Lawmakers had been assured that the federal government would pay for most of it, which has not proved true.

A 2003 audit by Oregon's secretary of state found a crucial need for an interoperable system. Without one, accident victims wait longer for help, criminals evade capture, car chases run longer and fire response time is slowed.

Potential for disaster

State Trooper Andy Moyer patrols parts of Columbia and Multnomah counties from his post in St. Helens. When a drunken driver left a Washington County hit-and-run and headed north toward Moyer last year, the trooper missed his chance to quickly intercept the driver --because his radio doesn't "hear" Washington County calls. Moyer's state radio doesn't "hear" Multnomah County calls, either.

"I could be right around the corner from a shootout, and I would never know it," he says.

The state audit also warned of dire consequences in the event of an earthquake, tsunami or other catastrophe.

Still, Oregonians won't spend limitless amounts of money on a state-of-the-art network without evidence that it's worth the price, says Lindsay Ball, head of Oregon's Department of Administrative Services, which oversees state operations.

He was recently given oversight of the plan and wants more study. Ball is hiring an analyst to produce cost breakdowns, and said he might delay requesting construction money until 2008:

"We have to have more detailed planning: This is what it will cost, this is the benefit you will derive. We can't say, 'Legislature, give me $665 million and let's call it a day.' "

Architects of Oregon's plan say three factors explain the big price tag:

* They want to cover every section of the state, not just heavily populated areas. Roughly two-thirds of the money would be spent to cover sparsely populated parts of Eastern and Southern Oregon. Utah's interoperable radio network, by contrast, covers 85 percent of its population --but only about a third of its state's geography.

* They must replace Oregon's outdated radio towers and equipment. Some states can put new equipment on existing towers or turn to a robust state fiber network. Oregon can't.

* Oregon has challenging geography. It has the nation's ninth-largest land mass, and the rugged Coast Range requires far more towers and transmitters than a flat area the same size.

Other factors are at play as well: Oregon is choosing more expensive technology, and the state plan includes equipment and capabilities for local responders to use the network.

John Powell, Western regional coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, predicts the state's cost will fall below $665 million if federal and local agencies contribute land, towers, equipment and money.

So far, Oregon's high-priced plan has drawn little public notice or scrutiny.

The governor, for instance, talked up his plans to devote more money to buildings at Oregon universities than ever before --some $590 million worth. But he did not call attention to his plans to spend $588 million building the new radio network and an additional $77 million operating it as it comes on line.

Public safety officials, led by Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Chief Jeff Johnson, are emphatic that the new system would improve public safety.

They concede that "interoperability" hasn't become a household buzzword --even though the inability of New York City police and firefighters to communicate on Sept. 11, 2001, awoke the nation to the problem.

From small-town police departments to big-city fire departments to the state forestry department, all Oregon public safety agencies are prepared to lobby hard for the new system.

"If we have to replace our radio systems --and we do," Johnson says, "why not do this the right way?"