The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has awarded 17 grants to local communities around the United States to improve emergency communications systems. One such grant, for $6 million, went to Sioux City, Iowa. The idea is to not only prepare for possible terrorist acts, but to improve emergency response for a wide variety of disasters.

In the Woodbury County communications center in downtown Sioux City, operators take in hundreds of calls every day and dispatch police, fire and medical teams to various parts of the northwest Iowa county. But sometimes there are emergencies of a large scale, such as tornados, that affect not only Sioux City but nearby communities across the Missouri river to the west, in the state of Nebraska, and across the Big Sioux River, to the northwest, in the state of South Dakota.

But Woodbury County Communications Director Glenn Sedivy says emergency response communication in this tri-state area is not what it should be.

"We are dealing with a wide range of communications frequencies. Nebraska and South Dakota use low band, UHF, high band?," he said. "We even have ioperablity problems between our own agencies. The sheriff cannot talk to the Sioux City police department. The police cannot talk to the deputies, let alone getting across the state lines."

Mr. Sedivy says police and other emergency responders have to utilize telephones to talk to their counterparts in the other states. It is not hard to imagine an emergency that would cause a breakdown in the phone system, making a better tri-state communication system extremely important. That is where the six million dollars from Homeland Security comes in.

Department spokesman Don Jacks, speaking to VOA from his Washington office, says the grants are part of a nationwide effort to improve emergency response communications.

"It was vital that the Department of Homeland Security look at the status of emergency operations centers and the ability to communicate across the country," he said. "As such, about $79 million was made available in the emergency operations center grant area and also in the interoperability grant area and jurisdictions were invited to write grant proposals."

Mr. Jacks says the grant money will help communities like Sioux City react more efficiently and effectively to natural disasters, accidents and even acts of terrorism.

Woodbury County, Iowa's Director of Emergency Services, Gary Brown, has had firsthand experience with a variety of disasters. He was in charge of rescue operations when a passenger plane crashed in Sioux City in 1989. One hundred 12 people died in that accident, but, thanks largely to the effective emergency response in Sioux City, with backup help from Nebraska and South Dakota, 184 people survived. It is this kind of cooperation that Mr. Brown says makes his city an ideal place to try new emergency systems.

"That was a model and it continues to be a model for emergency planning and response," he said. "We still get inquiries from around the world about what we did that day and how we did it. [Also] We had the Terra-Nitrogen explosion in 1994, it killed four people and injured eight as well as releasing several tons of chemicals into the environment. Again that was a tri-state response."

Mr. Brown says the Homeland Security grant will allow his office to utilize new technology to connect radio systems from all three states and various police and fire departments in each community. In addition, he says, the new system can be plugged into the existing Iowa Communications Network, or ICN, to expand its range. "Iowa is the only state in the union with a complete fiber-optic network statewide," he said. "We are actually going to take public safety communications and put it on that ICN and send it to where we want to send it in the state of Iowa. That is part of this demonstration project, is to be able to take public safety communications, push-to-talk walkie-talkies [radios] into the field and transmit that data over the Iowa Communications Network all the way across the state. The beauty of that is that once we get to the state emergency operations center, the world is available to us. From there they can connect us to experts, technical experts around the globe."

Mr. Brown says part of the idea behind the Homeland Security grant is to develop a model system that can be replicated in other communities. He says he expects to have many visitors from other cities and states once the new communications network is fully functional. The grant money must be committed for spending within a year, but officials are still not certain how long it will take to set up the new communications system.