LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature is planning to troubleshoot the state's troubled emergency radio system.
Two committees are joining forces for an interim study on the $17.3 million system, which has failed during at least three dangerous confrontations in which law enforcement officers were wounded. The system also generated nearly 500 problem reports last year.
The study, planned by the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, is designed to “burrow into” the communications troubles of the radio system and find ways to resolve them.
One state lawmaker said that recent media attention and inquiries by the Legislature have led to improved training for state troopers and others using the system.
But State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said there is still much work to be done in improving radio contact between state and local law enforcement agencies, especially during multi-agency emergencies and wildfires.
“We want to make sure we are making progress and reaching these goals as rapidly as possible,” Harms said. “We want to make sure this is not lost in the shuffle. That's my biggest fear.”
The World-Herald first reported in December on the troubles facing the state radio system. Among the disclosures: State troopers lost radio contact with each other during a 14-hour armed standoff at an Alliance, Neb., pharmacy. They resorted to using personal cellphones and running messages by hand to communicate.
Three law enforcement officers and a hostage were wounded during the incident. Officials described the communications failures as a “perfect storm” of problems.
But the Alliance incident and a later radio system failure during an armed chase involving two murder suspects in Johnson County, Neb., prompted the state troopers union to file a formal labor grievance. It claimed that the radio system was unsafe, jeopardized trooper safety and needed to be replaced.
That grievance is headed toward arbitration, which could take several months to resolve.
State senators said that the problems plaguing the radio system took them by surprise, because they had been told that the new system would resolve gaps of “interoperability” between local and state law enforcement officers.
In response, three senators — Harms; the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Omaha's Heath Mello; and Lincoln's Danielle Conrad — have been meeting with the state's radio contractor, Motorola, and affected state agencies this spring to understand and address the system's problems.
Mello said they still need more information.
“This is not a problem that's been solved,” he said.
Gov. Dave Heineman, when he was lieutenant governor, headed a committee that launched the statewide radio system, which serves about a dozen state agencies, including the Nebraska State Patrol and State Fire Marshall's Office, and the Nebraska Public Power District.
But only one local agency, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, has opted to join, leaving dozens of other local agencies to devise ways to patch into the state system. It has proven to be a complicated challenge, involving different radio bands, different radio technologies and new, more technical radio protocols.
Harms said the interim study might conclude that a grant program is needed to help more local agencies afford to join the statewide system.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com