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Virginia Improves Emergency Communication After 9/11

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Virginia is continuing to improve communication systems among firefighters, police and rescue workers following problems that surfaced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon.

Eight years ago, rescuers were unable to talk one another because they used different radio systems. Virginia was among the first states to adopt a strategic plan to address the communications problem called "interoperability" in the emergency-management world and has remained a top priority.

Emergency communications have accounted for about one-third of $268 million in federal homeland-security grants the state has received since 2003, not including about $330 million spent in northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region, or spending on bioterrorism and hospital readiness.

"We are confident that Virginia has been and remains a leader in expanding communications interoperability," said Robert P. Crouch Jr., assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness. "That does not mean we are all the way there."

Virginia State Police say they are working to finish a radio system that state police and 20 other state agencies will use to talk to one another and, eventually, to local first responders.

But the $360 million Statewide Agencies Radio System is 15 months behind schedule and struggling to remain within its budget. "It is a police officer safety issue," Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty said of problems that have plagued the five-year project.

Those problems include: laptop computers that shut off at high speed because of interference from the electronic fuel system in troopers' new vehicles; digital radios that turned talk to robotic gibberish when signals weakened; and delays in building microwave towers necessary to make the new system work.

The state is confident it has overcome most of the problems with the new system, which is now operating in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions. Fourteen localities in central Virginia and 32 statewide also are able to connect to the system through an Internet-based technology that allows different radio systems to talk to one another.

Local police also continue to struggle with the communications challenge in some parts of Virginia. And another of the challenges remaining is improving communications between colleges and the localities around them.

None of the problems are as notable as the Blacksburg area, where the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history occurred at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. A panel appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to investigate the massacre that left 33 people dead, including the gunman, noted the frustrating communications barriers.

"Every service operated on different radio frequencies, making dispatch, interagency and medical communications difficult," the panel wrote.

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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