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Emergency Communication Equipment Upgrades Costly, But Needed

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Many disasters require a state, local and federal response. But when the different agencies in North Carolina get together, talking to each other is a major problem.

"They'll be coming in with different radio systems," said Crime Control Secretary Bryan Beatty. "They won't be able to coordinate their efforts."

Beatty says the answer is VIPER, which stands for "Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders."  It's a state-of-the-art radio system that allows state and federal agencies to communicate with local jurisdictions.

The Legislature gave the project only $8 million of the $33 million the governor asked for in his latest budget. That's a drop in the bucket for a system that will cost nearly $190 million to complete.

"At that level of funding, it would take us 20 years just to get to where we say we need to be," said Beatty. "And by that time, the system would be outdated."

"The No. 1 priority with me is getting more people moving across the state on safer roads," said Sen. Clark Jenkins.

Jenkins is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation. Any state money for VIPER has to pass through his committee. 

"We were looking at a deficit when we were working on that budget," said Jenkins. "The question to the Highway Patrol team that was looking at it was -- how much can you spend between now and May, and the answer was basically $8 million."

"I don't think there's any question that the General Assembly doesn't recognize the need," said Mike Hodgson, of the N.C. Highway Patrol. "And what you'll see is that $30-$40 million worth of funding on an annual basis."

Whether that happens will depend on budget constraints. In the meantime, the Highway Patrol will depend on the 42-year-old system they use now, which they say is nothing short of embarrassing.

"We work hard to try and keep this equipment running," said Hodgson. "And we scrounge parts from other parts of the state, other state agencies, even agencies outside North Carolina. "It works every day, but there's no guarantee it's going to work tomorrow. And there's no guarantee that if it fails that we could get it back up and running in a timely manner."

"Virginia's building a brand-new system," said Highway Patrol Maj. Woody Sandy. "South Carolina is finishing a statewide 800-mhz radio system right now. We're the only one in the Southeast right now that hasn't updated their statewide communications."

The system is slowly being built across the state as money becomes available.  Most of the money so far -- some $50 million -- has come from Homeland Security grants, which are not guaranteed.


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