Homeland Security official, Tester meet with emergency responders
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas were in Helena Tuesday and heard of the importance of emergency officials being able to talk to one another across Montana.
At a subsequent meeting, held in the Helena Regional Airport’s conference room, they met with emergency responders to discuss their work and challenges.
While federal legislation in 2012 created the First Responders Network Authority, FirstNet, concern was voiced to Tester and Mayorkas on how long would be needed before this nationwide, wireless broadband network for public safety communications would be operational.
A radio network already serves portions of Montana, state and local law enforcement representatives said, but it was built through grants, and grants were expected to be used to complete the network.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said he wanted Mayorkas and Tester to understand the need for financial help to complete construction of this radio network.
Mayorkas, who arrived Tuesday, said the overriding message he heard from law enforcement officials was communications among state, local and federal law enforcement was their top priority.
The federal government provides grant funding to assist in building communications, he said, adding that there needs to be better dialogue between federal, state and local officials on what FirstNet will provide.
The challenges of narcotics trafficking, particularly in the Bakken region, was also emphasized during the meeting, he noted.
Tester and Mayorkas were also told that Montana is both a destination and a state where drugs, particularly methamphetamine, are found. Of particular concern for law enforcement and criminal justice is the flow of drugs into the Bakken area because of its oil production.
While there are resources that could be brought to address narcotics trafficking, Mayorkas said, “The challenges are in this area that when you add resources, one has to make sure that one has the downstream capabilities. So, for example, do the local law enforcement have the facilities to house the individuals that are brought into the system by virtue of increased prosecution?”
The meeting was an opportunity for Dutton to say that the county is attempting to build a new detention facility and to note help with construction would be appreciated.
Border security is a top priority, and the southwest border gets a lot of media attention, Mayorkas said.
“Quite frankly, that’s why I’m here, to understand what the border challenges are so we can address them,” Mayorkas said. “The northern border is not forgotten.”
Tester said the build-out of the system and the need for money for maintenance, radios and towers, “that’s what needs to be addressed.”
Also of concern to him, he said, was making sure the money goes to where it will do the most good.
With the system not being built-out, resources are being wasted as responders figure out what channels to use and how to talk to one another, Tester said of the concerns he heard.
“As the deputy secretary said, it’s going to be an opportunity for us to go back and get our heads together and figure out how to solve this problem,” Tester said.
“It’s not going to be cheap though, I have a feeling.”
Finding the money will not be easy, he continued and said, “But like any program, I think it’s about priorities”
“It’s kind of a waste if we don’t get it fully built out,” he added.
About 60 percent of the state is served by the radio system that has control centers in Helena and in eastern Montana’s Richland County, Dutton said.
State funds allocated for the radio system, which Dutton said became operational in about 2004, have since been used for maintenance.
He projected some $50 million would be needed to complete the existing radio system.
FirstNet is more data-driven, Dutton said, and functions much like a cellphone.
In Montana, he explained, there is a need for land radio communications.
He said FirstNet will focus on areas where more of the population exists, and added “So we’re going to be the last to get it and it doesn’t replace the mobile radio.”
Col. Tom Butler, with the Montana Highway Patrol, also emphasized the need to improve communications in remote areas such as Lame Deer, Browning and Lincoln County instead of the more populated areas such as Billings.
Tim Lambourne, assistant chief patrol agent for the Havre sector of the Border Patrol, echoed the need for equipment for agencies to be able to communicate.
If the existing system did not exist, there would be nothing available for communications, he said.