Saturday, May 25, 2013
By JONATHAN RISKIND, MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief
Update, 1:37 p.m.
WASHINGTON – Millions of dollars in federal and state funding, along with inter-county cooperation and cross-border initiatives with Canada, have all contributed to improved emergency communications in Maine since Sept. 11, 2001, says the head of the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
MEMA Director Robert P. McAleer spoke at a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing Wednesday examining the national state of emergency communications as the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches.
Among the senators at the hearing, which also featured a federal Department of Homeland Security official and two other local and state emergency officials, was Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee’s top Republican.
“As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, how first responders communicate with each other and how Americans receive emergency information remain challenges,” Collins said. But, “My own state of Maine has done a great deal to increase the ability of first responders to communicate with each other.”
Just since 2007, about $9.5 million of the federal homeland security grant money Maine has received has gone toward helping first responders, law enforcement agencies and other emergency personnel improve their ability to communicate in a crisis, both within the same department and across county, agency and even national lines, McAleer said.
Not all federal security funding going to Maine is for communications improvements, of course. In all, the Maine Emergency Management Agency says it has received $128.8 million in various homeland security funding – from money to train first responders in all aspects of handling a man-made or natural disaster to money to improve state and county emergency management centers – since 2002.
And that figure doesn’t include millions more in federal homeland security dollars that have gone directly to local fire departments and to local departments and communities for programs such as port security.
A large chunk of what Maine received for communications improvements was made possible by a single 2007 public safety “interoperable communications” federal grant totaling about $7.5 million, including $236,000 for the city of Portland to upgrade the city’s microwave communications system and $847,000 that went toward an effort to build a statewide communications system.
Plus, the state of Maine is investing $50 million of state funding to “essentially rebuild and expand the infrastructure backbone of the state’s communications system,” McAleer told the committee.
Other efforts carried out with the help of federal funding include placing caches of radios in remote border areas, buying new mobile towers and purchasing mobile radios for various first responder departments around the state.
A lot of time and money also has been spent training emergency personnel, especially unit leaders, on using all that new technology, and there have been cross-border communication working sessions with local, state and federal agencies on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, McAleer said.
Maine also has received a $4 million border communications federal grant to help reduce communications gaps along that 600-mile plus border with Canada.
McAleer noted that Maine is a large, rural state with vast areas of limited population and some rugged terrain.
“Maine is also not a wealthy state,” McAleer said. “These factors have made improving interoperability a challenge.”
That’s why the federal homeland security funding, which began increasing in the years following 9/11, has been so important, McAleer said. In 2003, for instance, grants included more than $477,000 to Portland to upgrade its communications capabilities, $71,000 to Augusta for a similar communications upgrade and nearly $267,000 was given to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office for a mobile data terminal system and to purchase mobile radios.
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