The Washington County Emergency Management Agency, over a four-year period, has brought in about $1.2 million in grant monies that have implemented a narrow band conversion process that is required by the federal government to be completed by January 2013. The funds also have provided new radios to a 16‑town group and a five‑town group and most of the radios in cruisers as well as "backbone" software and equipment, along with 138 pagers for fire departments and new or replacement communication towers with equipment upgrades on many of the county's existing towers. The agency has also landed a competitive application that will allow for enhanced cross‑border emergency communications.
In early 2011 Washington County was selected as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Border Interoperability Demonstration Project (BIDP), one of three on the U.S. and Canadian border and three on the U.S. and Mexican border. Washington County Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Hinerman explains that the county was the lead on the grant application for the almost $4 million dollar project and was selected out of seven northern border applicants. The grant funds are being used in partnership with the four border counties of Aroostook, Somerset, Franklin and Oxford and other tribal and Canadian entities to implement a demonstration project to enhance emergency communication capabilities along Maine's 611‑mile international border.
The end result of the project, says Hinerman, will be a "common hailing frequency" that will allow the U.S. and Canada to communicate with each other on cross‑border concerns involving fire departments, border patrol, police, customs and others. Hinerman explains that Homeland Security is concerned about the nation's safety: its borders, waterways and large utility infrastructure such as the electric power lines and gas pipeline that run through Maine. "They are critical to others," he says of the utilities, and a disruption would create major problems of public safety.
At the local level of border relations and concerns, "There are mutual aid agreements, but the idea was to expand in case of a large incident," Hinerman says, adding, "We're looking at ways how anyone out in the field could reach the regional communication centers on either side of the border."
The communication equipment will use open standards and multimodal, state‑of‑the‑art technology for both voice and data transmission.
Communication towers are a big part of the picture. Hinerman points out, "It's not in the federal program to build towers, but we told them if we can't build the towers then the project won't work." In order to eliminate the communication "dead zones," the network of existing communication towers will be linked to new towers, replaced or have new equipment installed on them. New towers have been or are being placed in Marshfield, Weston and Robbinston, and Franklin and Aroostook counties will have new towers installed. "A few towers will be replaced; they're too old to hold the weight of the new equipment."
The additional towers and the security priority of closing the communication "dead zones" in the rural and geographically challenging area may have ancillary benefits. Hinerman points out that as long as public safety and homeland security are not compromised, extra tower space could be rented or leased by broadband, cell phone or other service providers.
Hinerman expects that the mechanisms of the BIDP system should be in place by late fall 2013, with a completion date required by the grant terms of May 2014.