Ohio's New IT Backbone

New IT

By John Makulowich

A ground-breaking initiative is in the works in Ohio to revamp a 50-year-old radio communications system with a state-of-the-art backbone network that will link no less than 12 state agencies responsible for emergency management.

Named MARCS, for the Multi-Agency Radio Communications System, the network will provide Ohio's public health and safety officials with what contractors claim will be the most advanced instant data and voice communications technology in the country.

Set for completion by 2003, the network is intended to ensure a real-time, free flow of information between law enforcement and emergency services and provide 97.5 percent coverage of Ohio's 88 counties.

Over its five-year life, the contract could be worth more than $271.9 million.

Funding beyond the $24.8 million just authorized in mid-September to the partnership led by TRW Inc. of Cleveland, is at the discretion of the Ohio General Assembly and a state controlling board.

Key IT elements include a 800-megahertz, digital trunked radio system for secure, interference-free voice and data communications that will allow the highway patrol, prison officials, criminal investigators, environmental professionals and emergency workers to exchange information over one communications system.

MARCS will require about 200 radio towers that will connect to Ohio's existing communications network, Synchronous Optical Network.

The system will not only feature a statewide, computer-aided dispatch and records management system and a satellite network to track patrol cars, but also put computers in state trooper cars so patrols can gather data about license and criminal records.

For Ron Vidmar, deputy director of the general services division in the Department of Administration Service, this is another in a string of field-of-dreams projects that Ohio has initiated over the last 20 years.

Others are a microwave infrastructure and a supercomputer center.

"Ohio has been very successful at deploying statewide infrastructure with its long tradition of interagency cooperation," Vidmar says. "Our modernization efforts go back at least to the early 1980s, during the beginning stages of telephone deregulation."

According to Vidmar, the broader context for the new system was a discussion that started in 1988 about Ohio's antiquated radio systems and future telecommunication options.

That led to the formation of a task force in 1991 to address not just those questions but the role of the Internet as well.

Vidmar believes that there are about 14 states at some early stage of implementation or planning of similar systems. Arkansas is the only state that has full implementation.

"One of the challenges in this system is the nature of radio communication in that there is nothing there to buy," Vidmar says. "We will have to operate from over 200 towers, some on state land, some on private, some shared and so on. That will demand a lot of planning and coordination."

While not aware of any cost benefit analysis for this project, Vidmar said there are "always savings when you are able to share infrastructure. We got a reputation as being a field-of-dreams state. Not only did we take on the projects, but we did them economically in the belief that the benefits would accrue," he says.

"There are certain enabling technologies that just can't be projected. Our supercomputing center is a case in point. That was an infrastructure decision not based on sound economics, but on true vision," he says.

As prime contractor, TRW will perform the system design, integration and tests, facilities construction, management, training, maintenance, data management and overall program management.

Partners include Motorola, Schaumburg, Ill.; The Slane Co., Columbus, Ohio; GPD, Akron, Ohio; MDSL, Itasca, Ill.; PrintTrak, Boulder, Colo.; ITT Federal Services Group, Colorado Springs, Colo.; and EXCEL of Columbus.

Al Bailey, TRW's director of public safety communications systems, points to the Lucasville, Ohio, prison riot in 1993 as a key turning point in state appreciation of the importance of communications.

"In that case, the different agencies arriving on the scene could not communicate with one another. The Oklahoma City bombing is another case. The demand put on the system brought it down. In contrast, this system will allow the 12 state agencies to communicate with each other," Bailey says.

He paints different scenarios where this system will prevent unnecessary hardship in times of crisis.

For example, during winter, there are occasions of white out, where the driving snow makes visibility near zero. A snow plow operator might lose track of the road and get stuck. This system will allow the snow plow to be located automatically.

In another example, prison buses can be tracked, so if a situation arises such as inmates taking over a bus, authorities can pinpoint the vehicle's location.

"One of the major challenges in this project is the availability requirement, which is 99.98 percent. This demands sophisticated controls and strong alarm systems," Bailey says. "Also, we will install a very advanced information management system, which allocates use for costs to each of the participating agencies."

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