Communication is biggest hurdle for 2010 Olympics

Published on Thu, Jan 17, 2008 by Tara Nelson

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Communication is biggest hurdle for 2010 Olympics

By Tara Nelson

An increase of visitors as a result of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will likely pose a series of challenges for Whatcom County, but officials agreed the biggest hurdle will be maintaining adequate communication between local and federal agencies.

In a special meeting last week, Whatcom County officials and local police chiefs asked U.S. Senator Patty Murray for help, citing the need for increased interoperability, as well as a multi-agency emergency response center to deal with natural or man-made disasters.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said law enforcement in Whatcom County presents unique challenges, not the least of which is a 100-plus mile largely forested border with Canada. He added the county is also home to several potential “terrorist targets” including two major oil refineries, a petroleum pipeline, an interstate highway and rail system and two major hydroelectric dams – one of which supplies 20 percent of the city of Seattle’s electricity – all situated near the third busiest land crossing on the northern border.

“Reading the 9/11 report, it is clear the need for coordination and communication,” he said. “We’re not just lacking in interoperability; we’re lacking in basic communication. Over two-thirds of the county, we don’t have the ability for any radio communications because the infrastructure is just not there.”

Elfo agreed an emergency response center in Whatcom County would help as the closest other facility is located near Tacoma. And because of the federal presence here, the need for agencies to be able to work together is more important than in other areas of the state.

“We’ve been in meetings for the last two and a half years with the Washington state military department and with the Washington state Emergency Management Department and we’ve all recognized that Whatcom County cannot be managed from (far away),” he said.

NWFR district chief Tom Fields said he also has concerns about the increase in visitors with the 2010 Olympics. Fields said his district does not have enough radio frequencies to handle all of the calls and fire officials are often forced to communicate via their Nextel cell phones.

Fields said between July 1, 2006 and June 30, 2007, for example, fire operators alone dispatched 18,933 calls on one frequency.

“What we are seeing now is that if we have a major emergency event, we would be in a communication gridlock,” he said. “As it is now, we actually don’t have all of the frequencies to talk to each other.”
Blaine police chief Mike Haslip agreed.

“We’re blessed to have the number of border agents and customs officials – they’re the thin blue line between us and a very large metropolitan area that has its own set of problems,” he said.

“However, our ability to communicate between those agencies has sort of degraded over the last decade, not on a personal, day-to-day basis, but in terms of infrastructure.”

For example, Haslip said the cost of the radios his officers use to communicate have increased from $800 to $6,000 each. The radios are no more useful, he said, because of a lack of funding prevents those agencies from utilizing their full potential.

He added that in the event of an operational impact brought about by adverse criminal activity or a terrorist incident or a natural disaster, Haslip said the system would be “brought to its knees” in a short amount of time.

“In the years following Katrina and entering the 21st century, it’s a sad place to be,” he said. “We don’t have the money that we need to bring them up to operational capacity and when those systems fail, it’s not going to be just a local impact; it will be a regional impact because we sit at the bottleneck.”

Haslip went on to describe a situation in February 2006 where two murder suspects wanted in California tried engaged multiple law enforcement agencies in a high-speed chase that ended in one man being shot and his vehicle crashing into the Peace Arch monument.

None of the agencies on the ground were able to communicate with the others, he said.

“There are technology solutions to these problems but they are expensive,” he said.

Whatcom County information coordinator Joe Bates said Whatcom County executive Pete Kremen is currently in Washington, D.C. and plans to ask for at least $71 million in federal funding to help local agencies here.

About $11 million of that will be used to address communications issues. About $4 million would be used to construct a temporary regional emergency operations center and another $40 million would be used to construct a long-term one.

The rest would be used to implement federal requirements for increased border security, and help pay for costs associated with prosecuting and jailing “bounce backs” or criminals who are turned away at the Canadian border.

“A lot of these problems are not going to go away after the Olympics,” Bates said.