Legislature

Iowa Legislature patches 'holes' in emergency communications network

Move will allow law enforcement agencies statewide to communicate with each other

Dispatcher Ana Amaro answers a call at her station at the Linn County Sheriff’s Office in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Dispatcher Ana Amaro answers a call at her station at the Linn County Sheriff’s Office in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers have agreed to a $68 million patch for “holes” in a statewide communications network so law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency responders will be able to talk to one another.

The House, Senate and Gov. Terry Branstad’s office have reached an agreement on the $68 million, 10-year lease-to-own package that is expected to take three years to build out, according to Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake. The price tag may be less, he said, because State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald believes he can get a better interest rate than originally estimated.

There long have been problems with agencies not being able to communicate because of incompatible radios and networks, said Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a retired Johnson County deputy sheriff. In Johnson County, for example, the sheriff’s deputies and Iowa City police were on different frequencies.

“You could be right outside a bank being robbed and wouldn’t know it unless you happened to be listening to your scanner,” he said.

That problem has been resolved, and now Senate File 2326 should eliminate similar problems around the state. The plan includes building additional towers in places like northeast Iowa, where radio communication is limited by the topography, Worthan said.

“There are spots in Iowa where radios don’t work because of holes in the system,” Kinney said. In those cases, he added, not only are emergency response agencies unable to communicate with one another, “but no one can hear an officer if he needs help.”

The plan also includes hardware — radios, for example — and the software to run the Statewide Interoperable Communications System.

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Local agencies — fire departments and emergency medical services — will be able to use the statewide system without charge, but will have to buy their own radio equipment, Worthan said.

The system will be financed by a $1-a-month surcharge paid by cellphone users.

SF 2326, which was approved by the Senate 49-1, was approved 98-0 by the House and sent to the governor.

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