When Hurricane Ivan forced the evacuation of Gulf Coast residents last September, the state endured the most massive log jam in history, with traffic ground to a halt around Hattiesburg, leaving thousands of travelers stranded simply because of the lack of communication among the various law enforcement agencies involved in traffic control.
“There was mass confusion from the Gulf Coast to Hattiesburg,” said state Sen. Tom King (R-Petal). “Law enforcement agencies did the best they could with what they had, but couldn’t communicate with each other to coordinate traffic flow. It was horrendous anyway, and the only efficient way they could talk to each other was by using their personal cell phones.”
King vowed to make sure that crisis did not recur. In mid-January, he introduced Senate Bill 2514, which would ensure that one day soon, law enforcement entities and other state agencies can efficiently communicate with each other. The bill, which the Senate passed February 2, would create an 11-member Mississippi Wireless Communication Commission to promote the efficient use of public resources through the state-administered implementation of a wireless radio communication system.
“This would give us a system that would save lives,” emphasized King.
Nan Tarlton, former spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, said when she joined the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) last March, she was surprised to learn that a highway patrolman stopping a vehicle in Collins couldn’t automatically be linked to the local police department or sheriff’s office or sometimes even fellow patrolmen. Instead, he would need dispatch to connect him to the appropriate person — or use his cell phone.
“If I’ve got some bad guy looking at me, I don’t want to say, ‘Excuse me just a minute while I go make a call,’” she said.
During Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s term, a statewide executive committee was appointed to work on a statewide communication system.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t get very far because there’s a lot of turf protection on this issue,” said Tarlton. “They met a couple of times, and after Gov. Haley Barbour was elected, the group was rendered null and void. MDOT decided they needed a new wireless communications system but didn’t have enough money to do it on its own, so Willie Huff, chief of enforcement for MDOT, spearheaded the effort to bring together the groups that would use the system.”
Huff successfully brought together representatives from various agencies and law enforcement entities and pointed out that 15 states already had a wireless radio communication system, and another 15 states were building the necessary infrastructure. He showed comparisons of systems in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana and Virginia.
“We also realized we could use some existing towers so we wouldn’t have to start from scratch,” said Tarlton. “Harrison County has already spent a good deal of money on a radio system of its own, and the City of Jackson and Hinds County have fairly new systems. We’re looking at incorporating those systems into the network, and making it affordable for smaller systems, like the City of Indianola or Issaquena County.”
Last fall, MDOT asked local police chiefs and sheriffs whether a statewide wireless radio communication system would be helpful. Of those surveyed, 87% of local police chiefs and 85% of sheriffs said yes.
According to the legislation, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) would transfer $1 million annually from the Wireless Communication Fund to the Integrated Public Safety Communication Fund to be administered by the commission.
“A good bit of federal money is available through Homeland Security and other places, but we have to have a group in place to oversee and manage the build-out of the radio system,” Tarlton pointed out.
MDOT, DPS and the Mississippi State Department of Health, which links ambulances to local hospitals, would be the three primary users of the system. MDOT would provide a full-time staff person and office space until the system was established; the state department of Information Technology Services would supervise the program.
There’s not been any opposition to the bill, said King.
“We’ve had lots of questions, but people understand what we’re doing and why and the functions of the commission,” he said. “Everyone we’ve talked to, including House members who will hopefully concur with us, believe it’s good legislation and good for the people of Mississippi, who in the long run will be the winners in an emergency situation.”
Tarlton is optimistic about having a wireless radio communication system in place within the next few years.
“If things go well, we’ll let an RFP (request for proposal) go in March and hopefully begin to start the build-out of the system by the end of the year,” she said. “It’s been a hard uphill battle, but now it looks like it really can happen.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.