Clallam communications 'trail blazer'

The Olympic Peninsula Safety Communication Alliance Network is expanding across Puget Sound with a $7.3 million grant from the federal government.

While only some of the money will be used in the area, the support network of reliable radio-over-Internet communication throughout northwest Washington is priceless, according to project administrator Patti Morris, with the Clallam County Sheriff's Office.

"The grant, which is administered through the departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, will extend the OPSCAN network to Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Snohomish counties," Morris said. "Basically, OPSCAN is our own private Internet that streams radio through computer routers and gateways for communication."

The grant will fund OPSCAN's expansion to include other counties into Clallam County's model, will purchase a generator for a health facility at the Lower Elwha Tribe and will fund a feasibility study for creating a new emergency operations and law enforcement dispatch center.

Morris said the OPSCAN technology could be compared to a new alternative in home phone service, which is provided through a cable Internet line rather than the phone line.

"The system was set up on the North Peninsula in 2003 to align our first responders' communications in the event of an emergency," Morris said, indicating the system is used daily as well as for emergencies. "Now we are being recognized for the cooperative communication effort; other counties want to be on board and agencies across the country are looking into our network."

First responders in Clallam County, such as the Sheriff's Office, Sequim Police, Clallam County Fire District 3, each of the tribes and even state and national entities, use completely different methods of communication. From land lines and cell phones to radios broadcasting on VHF, UHF, 700 MHz and 800 MHz frequencies, responders in the agencies could talk among themselves but not necessarily with each other, that is until OPSCAN was developed.

"There are even instances, because of Clallam's rural setting, that responders were unable to speak to their superiors, like whenever District 3 responded to Diamond Point," Morris said. "Now the assistant chief can network through the system from his desk and speak with his firefighters or paramedics on scene."

While the system is helping first responders better communicate in everyday situations, it also will help communications in a disaster.

"The other counties really wanted us to be the lead on their inclusion into the radio-over-Internet network because of the 2009 Police and Fire Games and the 2010 Olympics," Morris said. "So we have done that as well as fund a feasibility study involving OPSCAN and the Clallam County Emergency Operations Center."

The grant paid for a $200,000 study that will look at how successful a joint law enforcement dispatch and emergency operations center would be. Morris said collaboration, networking and sharing costs, which may be the result of a joint operations center, is what makes OPSCAN possible and successful.

"I get hundreds of calls from agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Patrol out of El Paso asking how they can do something similar," she said. "It seems the hardest thing for other areas to get past is getting different agencies to work together."

She said once the collaboration is set in setting up a communications network, it can last through an emergency so the most effective response effort can be made.

OPSCAN was created through a similar grant to the one awarded earlier this month and is maintained through user fees agencies pay to be a part of the program.

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