SW Okla. emergency responders get communications upgrade - KSWO 7News | Breaking News, Weather and Sports

SW Okla. emergency responders get communications upgrade

Walters_Emergency responders in Southwest Oklahoma called other rescuers more than 300 miles away on Thursday.  However, they weren't using cell phones or portable handheld radios.  Instead, they tested new 800 mega-hertz radios.  The high-tech walkie-talkie's helped Walters responders contact dispatchers as far away as Miami in northwest Oklahoma.  The Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security says it hopes to have all emergency responders in the state using the same equipment, soon. 

Oklahoma Homeland Security Director Kerry Pettingill says that radios in the past were good, but didn't always work across the entire county - sometimes not even the same city.  With the new radios, he says it's no problem.  The Oklahoma Wireless Information Network travels the entire length of Interstate 44 in Oklahoma.  "It's going to help if we have a major emergency and we're in a predicament where we need help or another agency needs help -

we're capable of at least contacting each other, easier," said Walters Police Chief Mike Carter.

The I-44 corridor accounts for 75% of Oklahoma's population, and was the initial target of the network since grant money measures success in coverage.  "Being able to get to the rural areas," said Pettingill.  "Even though it may be a rural area, you have responders that put their lives on the line every single day." 

So, they are expanding the network with the hope that it will reach across the entire state, providing rural area rescuers with the radios, too.  "They may be the only ones, and that radio is their lifeline," said Pettingill. 

The Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security has spent more than $40 million for the communication system, and will spend another $8 million next year.  The radios range in price from $1,500 to $3,500 each, but state funding means that small towns like Walters don't have to break the bank to get them.  "There's no county funds...anything out of pocket," said Cotton County Sheriff Paul Jeffrey.  "It was all donated from Homeland [Security].  With installation, hand-helds, and our unit radios, probably $60,000 plus.  We've fared really, really well with Homeland Security."

Pettingill says Homeland Security funded radio systems for more than 100 local public safety agencies, and about 20,000 emergency responders can now communicate through the state.  In addition to purchasing more radios and towers, next year's funding will also convert the controllers from analog signals to digital - the same as TV broadcasts which will make the switch in February.

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