State Senator Bob Mensch’s (R-Montgomery) Senate Resolution 237, which would encourage county and local government and emergency services agencies to work with the Pennsylvania State Police and the Office of Public Safety Radio to create interoperability for the latest iteration of the Statewide Radio Network (STARnet), recently was approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

It is the latest effort to solve the decades-long process of creating a statewide public safety radio network.

Currently, Pennsylvania has nearly 30 different radio networks in use for first responders and emergency services personnel statewide. On the local level, there is a patchwork of radio networks that have varying levels of interoperability with one another and the statewide network.

The various levels of coverage and the lack of consistent interoperability have led to public safety concerns and the search for a viable statewide solution.

The efforts related to STARnet have been in operation since 1996, when Gov. Tom Ridge signed Act 148, which authorized the creation of a uniform statewide radio network to be used by emergency services personnel.

Since then, nearly $1 billion has been spent on multiple failed attempts to find a viable solution.

The latest iteration of the network, P25, is currently in the pilot phase, with the rollout expected to continue into 2021, when statewide fulfillment could be realized.

However, in order for that to occur, communication with local governments on the future of the radio network is key, said Mensch.

“I think everyone in the legislature is aware that over the previous two decades, we’ve had some difficulty with implementing a radio system that remains in place (and) provides the fiscal stability that the state needs to establish an operational system that can grow forward and is futuristic in its view,” he said. “As we move forward, I think it’s important we, as a state, begin to roll out more information to the counties and to the municipalities about the direction that the state is going. What I think we want to do is, to the extent that we can, avoid duplicate costs that might occur in counties and municipalities as they make patches or amendments to their system not knowing where P25 is headed.”

Last session, the Senate passed Senate Resolution 325, which urged the Wolf administration to solve the statewide radio network issues.

The administration’s response, the current P25 system, is currently being tested in northwestern counties where interoperability with extant local radio systems, international and inter-state frequencies, and compatibility with federal radio networks is being tested.

Maj. Diane Stackhouse, director of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Communications and Information Services, recently told the committee that statewide coverage is still anticipated for 2021.

“We are excited about coming to the conclusion of the pilot stage, which means at the end of December we will transition to a statewide rollout,” she said. “As we move forward, we are about building bridges with counties…I’m excited about the ongoing possibilities with counties and being interoperable. These are exciting times – we don’t want to force counties to join, but we offer partnering scenarios that might be attractive to counties.”

Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny), the Majority Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, noted that however the rollout progresses, it must be careful to avoid “the sins of the past” that have left the Commonwealth with nearly a billion dollars in out-of-pocket expenses, but nothing to show for it.

“Having spent 27 years in law enforcement, I know how imperative it is for our first responders to communicate in emergencies,” said. Sen. Vulakovich. “While there have been several misfires on the Statewide Radio System over the past several decades, the State Police are making solid progress with the new P25 Pilot Program and this resolution simply encourages further collaboration at the state and local levels.”

As of October 2016, the Pennsylvania State Police has allocated $44.5 million for implementation of P25, with more costs likely to come as statewide implementation grows near and newer individual radios will need to be replaced.

 

Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government.