Emergency Communication, the topic

P25_radios.jpgSo if the headline did not get your attention, maybe $14 million dollars will. This is what it will cost to outfit Black Hawk County emergency communication capabilities, from towers to radios. It looks like we have to do it, so the only real question is who will pay for and manage it. But there is always room for introspection. Read below...

2017 is quickly approaching and the radios are about to turn off.  For the last twenty years, emergency personnel in Black Hawk county (BHC) have used a proprietary system from RACOM Corporation.  It was a good system for its time because enabled radio interoperability and was relatively low cost.  In 2017, RACOM is essentially pulling the kill switch which puts our county and municipalities in a precarious position - spend money on a new system or communicate with pigeons. BHC Supervisors have stated they understand they have a larger role in the communication system, but do not wish to fund the system putting the onerous on the cities. From my vantage, emergency communication infrastructure should be owned and managed at a higher geo-political level than the city. Supervisors have an opportunity to step up and further legitimize the county's role in emergency management.

BHC.jpgOn July 17th, 2013, Supervisors facilitated a joint meeting with city officials to address the situation. An industry consultant presented a white paper of options. The system will cost around $14 million dollars. In the end, there was consensus that we need to upgrade our system and to make it nonproprietary, that is, to use a platform based on industry standards versus single company technology. There was also productive disagreement between the cities and supervisors about how to pay for and manage it.

The new system will be based on an emergency communication standard (APCO-P25) which was originally developed in 1989 as part of an act of Congress (when they did something). I will opine on two items: (1) the role of county government; and (2) what killed emergency communication innovation.

Iowa operates with 99 autonomous counties which are both geographic and political subdivisions of the state, the next subdivision is the city. The county is the umbrella geo-political structure of the the cities and rural areas contained within. The county performs many city-like functions such as planning and zoning, but it also provides essential services in judiciary, public health, law enforcement, etc. It is a logical geo-political structure to for many multi-jurisdictional services.

A quick point on regionalization.  County lines were drawn so a horse rider could do business at the county seat in a day, HorseOnField.JPGincluding travel time.  With advancements of travel (we’ve sent people to the moon) and communication (the pony express is no more), it would seem the concept of the ‘county’ is in dire need of reform to support greater regionalization. When is a service or function a candidate for regionalization? In my mind, when (1) no differentiation of a service or public good can be made on a geographic or political basis; (2) the economies of scale materially lowers the total cost of the service or public good; (3) it is consistent and compatible with the constitution, charters, or by-laws of the political body... we should seriously consider regionalization.

The county should own, fund, and manage emergency communication infrastructure.  Just like the the jail, landfill, and judicial function, little differentiation can be made as to the quality of service or need among the geo-political jurisdictions. For communications, there are significant economies gains by combining services, there are clear operational benefits as an incident command system, and it is well within the stated political jurisdictional mandates of the county.  Given the tests for regionalization, one could argue emergency communication infrastructure should be the responsibility of the state. Since the state has proven to be categorically inept in emergency communications or county reform, we’ll just leave it at that. We must control what we can, and this decision is in city and county hands. Political leaders need to recognize this and the evolving role of government. In some cases, we tear down silos to build new.  In other cases we need to build bridges of cooperation and collaboration among political jurisdictions.

All taxpayers recognize a need for coordinated, collaborative emergency communication and the need to pay for it. So who asks for the taxes should be of no consequence so long it is an elected body that can be held accountable for proper management and oversight. The county is the most logical taxing body versus their suggestion of a complicated per capita allocation.  Since the infrastructure is regional, it makes sense that they manage it as well. In fact, Black Hawk County’s Emergency Management Agency already exists and its vision/mission is completely consistent with infrastructure ownership

P25_radios.jpgNow a word on innovation.  I am not expert on emergency communication, but I try to critically think these things through. As noted, the standards development began in 1989. Standards are great because they chisel knowns into our world. They are also awful because they are normally obsolete by the time they are deployed and they become an innovation barrier incapable of keeping up with changing technologies and processes.  Worse, they are most likely developed by industry veterans, embedded technology corporations, and infrastructure providers (a.k.a. special interest groups).  In our case, it may explain why communication infrastructure is so expensive at $14 million. Only 4 companies provide the infrastructure standard which is dangerously close to a monopolistic market.

This purchase assures that we will preserve radio communications as they have always been done.  But isn’t there a better way than the ubiquitous clunky, heavy, just-better-than analog looking devices? We are assured communication will be digital, and that should excite anyone still using 8-tracks. How about full integration with tablets or smart phones for incident response including routing direction, amber alert pictures, locations of other communication devices? The smart communication tool could have applications for redundant communication through microwave, cell, satellite, or hamm towers. The future is here, but standards can’t see the future. 

Lets wrap it up. We will have a new system. System infrastructure should be paid for by a county emergency communication tax. The county should own and manage the infrastructure.  At the same time, we need a formula to tie operating costs to actual users. All taxing revenues should be earmarked only for emergency communications with a clear sunset. We can dream about innovation that will deliver more cost effective and functional technology, but for now, we will rely on technological creative destruction that will make switching in the future necessary and easy.


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