Ten years ago in April, a U.S. Marines Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey aircraft crashed at the Marana Regional Airport, killing all 19 servicemen aboard.
In the rescue efforts, emergency responders from numerous area agencies rushed to the scene. As is typical in multi-agency rescue efforts, none of the agencies on the ground had the technical capability to communicate directly with responders from other agencies.
Pima County officials have been working since 2004 to consolidate public safety communication under one roof. County voters approved the Pima County Integrated Wireless Network in a 2004 bond election. The $92 million bond project would put all participating agencies on one 800-megahertz digital radio system, bringing to fruition a long-sought compatibility in communication.
"What we're trying to accomplish here is to provide interoperability to all the participating agencies," said Capt. Paul Wilson of the Pima County Sheriff's Department, who heads up the PCWIN project.
Wilson said the entire project would cost an estimated $105 million, with federal grants making up the difference.
Interoperability, the goal of PCWIN, essentially means agencies from disparate parts of the region would have the capability to communicate directly with one another.
That's not how things work today.
When one emergency responder needs to communicate with another agency while on the scene of, say, a multi-vehicle car wreck, a series of go-betweens are needed.
For instance, police units to arrive first in the scene might need to redirect emergency medical services because the wreck would have caused major traffic impediments.
To do so, police would first radio their own dispatchers and tell them the alternative route for fire or ambulance units to take. Next, police dispatchers would use a land phone line to call fire dispatchers to inform them of the traffic conditions and alternate route.
Then fire dispatchers would radio the now enroute units to tell them to change course. The whole communication could take minutes or more and resemble a high-stakes game of grapevine.
"City of Tucson fire and police are on two different radio systems and they can't talk to each other," Wilson said.
Early on in the planning, Wilson said some agencies lobbied to have a communications network comprised of the many disparate parts, in which agencies would essentially patch in without incorporating under one communications umbrella.
While possible, Wilson said such a network would have limitations, with agencies tapping into the county system in various ways.
Under the PCWIN plan, Pima County would act as the lead agency while participating agencies, like police and fire departments, would pay a per unit fee.
In the case of Oro Valley police, for example, each officer would be assigned a pair of radios — one for the vehicle and one that the officer carries. The department would pay about $42 per radio per month. The estimated annual cost to Oro Valley would run $110,000.
Nearly 8,000 new on-board and hand-held radios would need to be purchased, depending on how many agencies decide to participate in the final network. Bonds would cover the costs of communication equipment needed for the upgrade at agency dispatch centers.
In addition, the county has purchased a property near 22nd Street and Alvernon Way in Tucson that would serve as the regional communications headquarters. Each agency would still maintain and staff its own dispatch center.
Not every government in the county wants to be a part of PCWIN.
The Tucson Regional Airport Authority has opted out of the plan, citing costs and certain control issues. The Town of Marana has effectively backed out of the plan as well.
In the latter case, a dispute between the town and Pima County prompted the split.
With communications needs of its own pressing at the time, Marana invested more than $2 million to upgrade its system in 2004. The system was again upgraded in 2008 and today resembles that which the county envisions for the entire region.
The dispute reached a crescendo at a Jan. 20 Marana Town Council meeting, where Wilson was on hand to discuss the project with town officials. Marana officials looked askance at overtures from the county, especially a perception that joining PCWIN would require an effective relinquishing of control and equipment to the county.
"The county was asking us to give them our system and we said 'no'," Marana Mayor Ed Honea said.
The town also owns six 800-megahertz frequencies that would be needed if it were to participate in PCWIN. Honea said the frequencies carry a value of at least $500,000 each. Wilson agrees, but said that value more applies to 800-megahertz channels in the commercial spectrum, not necessarily those used for public safety.
"They belong to our taxpayers, why would we give it away?" Honea said.
Marana officials have said in no uncertain terms, however, that they have no interest in joining a county-run system with County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry at the helm.
"He doesn't negotiate in good faith," Marana Councilwoman Roxanne Ziegler said. She cites a pair of intergovernmental agreements with the county that she believes Huckelberry and the county broke. The most heated of those disputes has the two governments battling in the courts for control over a wastewater treatment plant and related infrastructure in Marana. That case goes to court in Maricopa County this week.
Ziegler also said the county backed out of a contract to connect homes in Marana's Honea Heights neighborhood to central sewer.
"If they haven't honored that contract, what makes you think they would honor the PCWIN contract?" the mayor said.
Almost immediately following the January town council meeting, Huckelberry sent Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson a memo notifying him that the county intends to proceed without the town on board.
"The current Marana radio system will no automatically interoperate with the PCWIN network," Huckelberry wrote, explaining that attempts to tap into the network without a complete buy-in on the part of the town would have limitations and costs.
"The cost for this option, or to buy into the PCWIN system for complete interoperability in the future, will be the responsibility of the Town of Marana under the rules defined in the PCWIN Business Plan," Huckelberry wrote.
Other agencies seem more at ease with the prospect of a large, county-run communications network.
"Seventy percent of our calls come from the sheriff's department and 30 percent from Marana Police Department," said Jim Long, communications coordinator with Northwest Fire/Rescue District.
Long said communication issues routinely come up when the fire district conducts training and practice operations. Many of the operations involve preparing for multi-agency response scenarios.
"To interact directly with these agencies is extremely beneficial, we can't do that today," Long said.
How Northwest would manage the inability to communicate directly with Marana after PCWIN implementation has not been hashed out.
A more practical problem lies in the actual use of language.
Today, most police agencies use a vernacular all their own. So, for example, code 1 in agency is shorthand for "at your convenience." In other law enforcement agencies, such as the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the same term refers to a bomb threat.
"We may need to drop the 10 codes," Wilson said.
Agencies likely would be required to use common language to eliminate confusion. How that would take place is a work in progress, Wilson said
Wilson anticipates implementation of the PCWIN network to take place by 2013.
Participating agencies, estimated costs
Agency Annual cost
Ajo/Gibson Volunteer Fire $14,267
Arivaca Volunteer Fire $12,738
Avra Valley Fire $29,043
Corona de Tucson Fire $13,248
Drexel Heights Fire $40,762
Elephant Head Volunteer Fire $9,171
Golder Ranch Fire $60,123
Green Valley Fire $42,290
Helmet Peak Fire $31,590
Mt. Lemmon Fire $20,381
Northwest Fire/Rescue $109,037
Pascua Pueblo Fire $12,228
Picture Rocks Fire $17324
Rincon Valley Fire $24,966
South Tucson Fire $10,190
Three Points Fire $18,852
Tucson Fire Department $344,435
Why Fire District $11,209
Oro Valley Police $110,566
Pascua Yaqui Police $41,781
Pima College DPS $41,781
Pima County OEM $44,838
Pima County Sheriff's $1,008,339
Sahuarita Police $64,199
South Tucson Police $34,138
Tohono O'odham Police $142,666
Tucson Police $1,125,529
University of Arizona Police $92,223