From the banks of Baltimore's Inner Harbor this week, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) was able to speak with state police officers in Cecil County, at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and on the Eastern Shore.
It was a sunny, clear day, but had it been an emergency, the governor and police agencies could have started mobilizing across Maryland to respond.
The ceremonial first call showed what a $349 million statewide interoperable police radio system, called Maryland FiRST, will be able to accomplish when the project is complete in 2016.
O'Malley said later that the call was “clear as a bell,” despite the distance.
“We had a lot of catching up to do after 9/11,” O'Malley said during the state Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, when funding for the second phase of implementation was approved. “This is a real accomplishment.”
After radio communication problems between New York City police, fire and other agencies were highlighted during the terrorist attack, the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Homeland Security began urging all public safety agencies to move to 700 MHz and 800 MHz coordinated frequencies, said Ray Lehr, director of Maryland's Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee.
“The current system that Maryland State Police and most state law enforcement agencies have are pretty old and outdated and limited in their range,” Lehr said.
The new system not only will allow government agencies from police to public works to communicate during large-scale emergencies like terrorist attacks and natural disasters, but also will help in situations like long-distance police chases, when officers might previously have lost radio contact, Lehr said.
The Maryland Transportation Authority, Maryland State Police and Kent County are connected to Maryland FiRST now. The entire first phase, which will provide coverage in central Maryland and the Interstate 95 corridor, an area that covers one-third of the state's population and two-thirds of the state's critical infrastructure, will be fully operational by the end of 2012.
The second phase will add Eastern Shore agencies, said Clarence Jewell, a member of the Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee.
“To be able to talk to everyone from Oakland to Ocean City is going to be tremendous,” said Jewell, who also is Frederick County's director of emergency communications and a volunteer firefighter.
Such a system would have helped during the recent G-8 summit at Camp David. Officials from several different agencies were able to communicate during the summit, but the county had to take the time to create patches to get the systems working together, Jewell said.
In the future, such communication could be seamless, Lehr said. Maryland currently is working on communications plans with the District of Columbia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, Lehr said.
In a separate but related move, the Maryland State Police stopped using 10-codes in their radio transmissions on Feb. 1. Before then, Maryland State troopers would use the code "10-46" to refer to a disabled vehicle, whereas now the officer will simply say "disabled vehicle." It's all part of the growing trend to ease communication with other departments, Lehr said.
“In an emergency, if your '10-35' is different than another agency's '10-35,' that's a problem,” Lehr said.