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Proposition E-911 would modernize disaster response, say supporters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2009 - On Aug. 1, 2007, a Mississippi River bridge near the Minneapolis downtown area collapsed during the evening rush hour's bumper-to-bumper traffic, killing 13 people. Fortunately, first responders were able to rescue more than 100 others, thanks in no small part to a new 800 MHz regionwide emergency radio system.

Unfortunately, had a similar disaster occurred in St. Louis County, many more people might have died, trapped in their cars or bleeding from crushing injuries, according to local disaster planners.

Proposition E-911, on Tuesday's ballot in St. Louis County, would fund a radio system in line with the one that boosted the Minneapolis-area rescue workers' success. With their radio capabilities, responders from various Minneapolis jurisdictions communicated within seconds of learning about the bridge collapse. In St. Louis, rescue workers could only formulate a plan after arriving at the disaster site, a waste of precious time.

"They would all show up on the scene and then somebody would say, 'OK, everybody go to channel five and we'll coordinate it off that,' but they would have to clear that channel first. That would be hours into the incident," said Nick Gragnani, executive director of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System (STARRS). "Minneapolis has had their system since 1992. That shows you how far behind we really are."


Prop E-911 would add a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to purchases made in St. Louis County, or $1 on every $1,000. By raising $16 million a year, it would provide money for three emergency preparedness upgrades:

  • $80 million to buy 700 or 800 MHz radio system for fire, police and EMS, and make them interoperable with others in the region
  • $10 million to allow 911 emergency call centers to trace location of calls from cell phones (70 percent of all 911 calls)
  • $10 million to repair non-working tornado warning sirens and add 60 more to cover expanding county population

The  $100 million bond issue to pay for these improvements would be paid off in about 20 years.



St. Charles, Jefferson, Madison and St. Clair counties and the city of St. Louis currently operate or are setting up up-to-date 700 or 800 MHz police and fire radios. St. Louis County is getting by with a hodgepodge of different radio systems bought by the county's 92 municipalities, 42 fire districts and 51 police departments through the years.

"We are an island in the middle of counties that are implementing this type of system," said Skip Mange, a former St. Louis County councilman who chairs the Citizens in Support of E-911 Campaign Committee.

Last week at a news conference, County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said that first responders for too long have grappled with an "outdated, antiquated and dangerous'' communications arrangement. 

Not only is the St. Louis County system unreliable, according to Gragnani, it's expensive to keep up. Replacement tubes for the 1950s radios that used to cost $3,000 are considered valuable collectibles that sell for up to $15,000 each in antique shops. Even at that price, they don't always work.

"If I plug that tube into the system, and it fries the system I have no guarantee," Gragnani said.

Further making his point, Gragnani joked that even repairs are made the old-fashioned way: "Some really good technical people are keeping them running, with bailing wire and bubble gum."


If St. Louis County doesn't replace its radio system, it may be subject to fines. By Jan. 1, 2013, the VHR frequency bands of all first-responder radios must be cut in half and municipalities would have to buy all-new radios anyway.

According to Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch, if E-911 doesn't pass and each jurisdiction ends up buying its own new equipment, taxpayers will shoulder a bigger burden than if they passed the sales tax increase.

"It's more costly to go it alone,'' Welch said at McCulloch's news conference.

Last November, county voters rejected a 1.85-cent use tax for out-of-state purchases, one-third of which would have funded the new radio system. Mange is hoping the tide will turn this year.

"This is a public safety issue and not mixed with anything else and not at the end of a very long ballot. I think people who come (to the polls) will concentrate on the question of whether or not 10 cents on $100 is worth making the changes that we need in public safety," Mange said.

Still, especially in this economy, some people will vote no on any tax hike, Mange said. But it's difficult to find a government representative who will go on record opposing E-911. Democrat Steve Stenger of Affton, one of two County Council members to oppose E-911, was quoted by media sources in September as calling the tax measure an unfunded government mandate that shouldn't have to be shouldered by taxpayers.

But after numerous unreturned phone calls for this report, Stenger's executive assistant Linda Henry explained, "He doesn't want to have an influence on the vote."

The other opposing councilman, Republican Greg Quinn of Ballwin, did not return calls.

University City resident Tom Sullivan, a consultant for a group opposing a county smoking ban on the November 3 ballot, is also fighting against Prop E-911.

"This is basically a tax grab," Sullivan said.

According to Sullivan, the county has other means of paying for the upgrade in radio communications, such as casino revenue and millions of dollars in settlement money the county and its municipalities recently received from AT&T over non-payment of business license taxes. He also noted that St. Louis County residents are already paying a quarter of a cent more in sales tax to benefit a new Community Children's Service Fund.

Besides being a "tax grab," Sullivan says, "Even worse, it will mean another commission made up of political appointees who aren't accountable to anyone -- just like the Metropolitan Sewer District and the Metro transit agency." 

No matter how it's funded, national experts say having a modern communications system is a critical part of successful police, fire and EMS response to everyday emergencies and mega-disasters.

"It's the difference between saving lives and people dying unnecessarily," said Robert Abrams, an emergency preparedness expert and author of "Watered-Down Truth: A Flood of Lies That Was More Deadly than Hurricane Katrina." "If you have a communications system that is not up to date, then in an emergency situation, you're putting your community in peril."

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.