Seamless government takes work

National Association of State Chief Information Officers

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While technology has been touted as a way to achieve "seamless government" across jurisdictional and political boundaries, it takes preparation, promotion, patience and lots of perseverance.

Those elements emerged from a National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) panel of technology and government officials, who explained how they involved a variety of local, state and federal agencies in developing their interoperable radio communication systems within their states. NASCIO held its midyear conference in Pittsburgh April 7-8.

Steve Proctor, executive director for the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN), said officials there began to learn the importance of a communications system in 1988, eight years before the 2002 Winter Olympics was awarded to the state, when two planes collided over a city and 30 agencies responded without being able to talk with one another.

Despite that tragedy, a study calling for a $160 million system was deemed too expensive. There were other competing priorities. Gov. Mike Leavitt told officials at that time that the state would back the initiative if municipal support could be garnered. After discussing the issue at a couple of legislative sessions, a governance vehicle was created to do nothing but focus on communications interoperability for the counties involved with the Olympics, Proctor said.

"You just never, never, never give up," he said.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said, was "America's coming-out party," and people then realized the importance of interoperable communications. Through grants and borrowing, the system was built for the region surrounding Salt Lake City. In the Olympics' 29 days, the system processed 10.2 million calls.

UCAN, a quasi-state agency, now operates and maintains a 10-county system — covering one-third of the state — serving 101 public safety agencies, connecting 44 remote sites and towers, and 17 Enhanced 911 centers, and it serves 10,000 radio users.

Proctor said he found champions in the legislature and educated local public safety officials statewide, who in turn helped pressure the legislature. He described his dealings with the federal government as "outstanding," partly because it was forced with the Olympics. However, he said federal officials are limited in sharing their communications.

South Dakota's experience wasn't dissimilar. A tragedy also revealed communications limitations among responding public safety groups, said state CIO Otto Doll. He said they had to talk with local officials several times about what they had, and then spent a lot of time educating the officials about the pros and cons of a statewide system. He said trust among the different governments is an issue as well as their perception of a loss of responsibility and control in signing on to a statewide project.

"No matter how good the gift horse looks, somebody's going to kick it in the face," he said, adding education and salesmanship helps them adopt and adapt to the solution.

Officials sought help from their federal delegation, applied for federal grants, and gained some financial support from the state government for the $28 million project.

"To me it was no magic, it was hard work," Doll said.

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