Las Vegas Sun

May 26, 2024

Governor, staff try to repair NHP radio mix-up

CARSON CITY -- Gov. Kenny Guinn and legislators are trying to unravel confusion surrounding a potential $15 million blunder that could force the Nevada Highway Patrol to scuttle its communication system, which is only three years old.

"It's a mess," said Michael Hillerby, assistant chief of staff for Guinn. He said the governor's office is working with the Federal Communications Commission to resolve the problem.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, also seemed alarmed by the scope of the blunder.

"I don't have a handle on it," he said. "All I know is it has a serious cost to the highway fund and a couple of million dollars to the general fund."

Also looking for answers was Sen. Sandra Tiffany, R-Henderson, a member of the Senate-Assembly subcommittee that reviewed the highway patrol's budget.

"I do know pieces but I don't know the answer," said Tiffany, who added she has been inundated with e-mails offering various suggestions.

The highway patrol spent $15 million to $16 million building the communications system that allowed its officers to communicate with each other, the dispatch centers and some other law enforcement agencies, most of them in rural Nevada.

The system, built by Motorola Inc., which was paid $11 million, began operation in 2000, operating on VHF frequencies without the FCC approval.

Some of the 150-megahertz frequencies being used are dedicated to railroads, which have complained that highway patrol traffic interrupts their communications.

The FCC is investigating the problem.

The highway patrol did not apply to the FCC for the frequencies until mid-2002, when it sought a temporary permit. That permit has expired, however, and the patrol never moved for permanent approval.

"Whatever reason, the guys who were there before never followed through," Hillerby said.

Most of the patrol employees who worked on the system are gone, he said.

The most pressing problem, Hillerby said, is that the state must abandon the frequencies it has been using by June 9 and return to a conventional system.

"Right now the attempt is to find enough legal frequencies to operate it in a conventional mode," Hillerby said.

Christopher Perry, a highway patrol officer, has been assigned to find the answers needed to keep the system going. The patrol, he said, apparently had been operating illegally on 140 channels. He hopes to have the switchover completed by June 9, and he said he intends to come up with a more permanent solution by summer.

The FCC could levy fines of up to $1 billion for the infractions, Perry said, but he is hoping the agency won't. FCC officials have said their first priority is to find out what went wrong and to work with the governor's office to fix the problem.

The patrol operates on a 150-megahertz system. The FCC says there is a limited number of these channels available. Hillerby said he was told by FCC officials that they want law enforcement groups to use 700- or 800-megahertz frequencies.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has been pushing for all law enforcement and emergency agencies to use the same frequencies to ensure they can communicate. That was a problem in the aftermath of the attacks, when emergency units in New York could not communicate because they were on different frequencies.

A similar situation exists now in Nevada. Police in Henderson, North Las Vegas and in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area are on 800-megahertz systems, making it difficult for the highway patrol to communicate with them.

The Nevada Transportation Department has an 800-megahertz system, but converting to that system would mean replacing most of the equipment in the present system at a great cost, officials said.

Rural law enforcement units in Nevada, however, are on 150-megahertz systems, Hillerby said. In some rural counties, the highway patrol trooper is backed up by the sheriff's office and vice versa.

If the highway patrol switched to 800 megahertz, rural counties fear that would hurt their law enforcement efforts by limiting their ability to communicate with the patrol.

Hillerby said there is a possibility that converters could be purchased to upgrade the systems and alleviate those concerns. He added that the administration is working with the Senate Finance Committee and the Assembly Ways and Means Committee to put $15 million to $16 million in a reserve account.

The patrol could then approach the Legislative Interim Finance Committee for the money once a permanent plan is developed.

FCC officials say that once the engineering and other studies are completed on available frequencies, the agency could act within 45 days to approve or disapprove an application for a permanent license.

The officials said the FCC's initial investigation is aimed at uncovering all of the facts, rather than imposing an immediate penalty.

The Senate Finance Committee intends to gather more information this week and decide whether to pour more money into the system or wait.

The patrol said its study on the mistakes will be sent to the state attorney general's office to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.