Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Should terrorists attack or tornadoes rip through Wisconsin, improvements being made to emergency communications should one day help first responders throughout the state talk with each other.

But today, if storms topple trees onto roads in Janesville, or if a semitrailer spills chemicals on a city street, police there can't use their radios to alert city public works employees.

It's those kinds of everyday emergencies that most concern local officials, some of whom say a planned $22 million statewide radio system isn't needed and won't work with their existing radios, which rely on their own networks of towers, antennas, and frequencies.

And while the system is intended to tie all law enforcement in the state together, many public safety officials say they don't plan to use the new network - known as the Wisconsin Interoperable System for Communications, or WisCom - and say it's sapping federal grant money that could be better spent at the local level.

"The first people that are going to go to a disaster in our community are going to be our locals. Police, fire, EMS, transit," David Sleeter, 911 communications director for Rock County, said. "If we have an evacuation or hazardous material spill, or even a terrorist incident, the locals are going to have to be (able to communicate)."

But when county officials tried to apply for federal homeland security grants to upgrade Rock County's local emergency radio systems, Sleeter said, they were told the money had already gone to the state for WisCom.

WisCom, envisioned as a network of hundreds of frequencies linked by 80 towers and antennas throughout the state, aims to provide coverage for 95 percent of Wisconsin. But that coverage estimate applies only to radios with powerful antennas that are located in emergency responders' vehicles, known as mobile radios. Coverage by the statewide system will be far spottier on the weaker, portable radios officers wear or carry with them.

Seventy percent of WisCom towers will be operating by July 2011, said Tami Jackson, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Justice Assistance, which is overseeing the project. Once the system is fully operational, she said, WisCom will use the towers to create four public safety channels linking airwaves throughout Wisconsin.

Jackson said the $22 million in federal homeland security money for initial construction is much cheaper than similar projects in neighboring states. A similar statewide project in Minnesota cost $200 million.

Spotty coverage

But there are key differences between them. Minnesota's system provides 95 percent coverage across the state for portable radios, Bloomington Fire Chief Ulysses Seal said. That state's network also relies on radio frequencies in the 800 megahertz range, which many in the public safety field say is best at penetrating buildings.

Wisconsin's emergency communication system is being built mainly on a radio band known as very high frequency, or VHF, which travels farther and requires fewer towers, the most expensive part of the network.

Trouble is, some public safety officials say they need more towers than WisCom will offer to get strong enough signals to work with their existing portable radios, which have less power and smaller antennas than mobile radios. A weaker signal, transmitted over a lower-range VHF band, means emergency responders could lose communication when they enter buildings.

That can mean danger. Portable radios serve as a lifeline for first responders. When police officers wander into dark city parks at night, or firefighters rush into burning buildings, they rely on their portables to stay in touch with dispatchers and one another. Not being able to hear, or be heard, may put lives at risk, critics say.

"We have very good (radio) coverage throughout our county, even on portables" on existing networks, said Joseph Meagher, director of emergency management for Dodge County. "WisCom would never, ever accomplish the coverage that we currently have on our system."

WisCom doesn't guarantee portable radio coverage in all areas of the state, Jackson said. But she said Wisconsin officials are confident "thousands" of radios currently in use will work with the new system. And she said some others can be upgraded to work with WisCom.

Program ‘cost-effective'

Many counties will have to pay to expand and upgrade their local systems with equipment if they want to make them compatible with WisCom. Jackson said it's not clear how much it will cost local agencies and counties to use the system, but that the state still thinks it's taking "cost-effective approach."

But Meagher said it's a challenge for local agencies to upgrade any of their radios and other equipment because of a lack of money available for smaller, countywide projects.

Initial plans by Dane County for a $30 million countywide system collapsed after municipalities balked at sharing operating and maintenance costs.

A state audit released in May raised questions about whether Wisconsin officials are wrongly shifting the costs of WisCom from the state onto local agencies and counties. The OJA and Wisconsin Emergency Management are required to report back by Aug. 31, and the Legislature's audit committee has scheduled a Sept. 7 hearing on the matter.

"One of the reasons why I requested this audit, there's no greater responsibility for government than to keep people safe and be able to respond in times of emergency," said state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, co-chair of the audit committee.

State keeps money

Local agencies typically get at least 80 percent of these types of federal homeland security grants, meaning the state is generally only allowed to keep 20 percent, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But not so for WisCom.

In late 2008 and early 2009, the OJA signed agreements with four statewide organizations - the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, Badger State Sheriff's Association, Wisconsin Emergency Management Association, and Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association - allowing it to keep most of the $15.4 million in federal homeland security dollars for radio improvements awarded to the state in recent years.

The agreements satisfied federal requirements but nevertheless drew the ire of some counties.

The Rock County Board passed a resolution two years ago accusing the state of violating its duty to share the money and said the county's future grant requests for its own public safety communications "may not be considered for funding." Dodge County also signed a resolution in 2007 opposing the state's move.

No rush to sign up

The state says WisCom will be a crucial tool in the event of a major disaster. And Jackson said counties and local agencies will not be required to pay for the system if they only use it during large-scale emergencies.

But Jackson said local agencies that choose to use WisCom channels and towers for all of their daily radio traffic rather than maintaining their own systems may have to help pay for the system. And she said federal grants have been made available for counties by OJA.

But so far, few seem to be rushing to sign up as daily users of the system, raising questions about whether most emergency responders would actually be able to use it in a major catastrophe. A spot check of several counties by the State Journal found none that planned to switch to it for regular operations.

"Unless you train with it, forget it," Sleeter said.

That's because using a public safety radio system isn't as simple as changing channels on a stereo. Different equipment is often incompatible, and different systems rely on unique networks of antennas, towers and gear.

"What happens in the case of a large disaster and we have this system, but nobody can use it?" said state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, co-chair of the Legislature's audit committee, who questioned whether the homeland security money should be reallocated to help local agencies meet more urgent needs.

"People's lives are at stake, their properties are at stake," she said. "This is something the state has to get right."

State Journal reporter Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.