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Published: Monday, 7/24/2006

Can you read me now?

Ohio's multi-agency radio communications system - MARCS for short - is reported to be fully operational, ready to connect authorities during the next big emergency to hit the Buckeye State. What else can we say except that it's about time?

The $293 million project seems to have been in progress since about the time the Earth's crust cooled, but that's an exaggeration. Planning and construction actually spans the administrations of three governors and part of a fourth, dating back to 1982 and the final term of the late James A. Rhodes.

Along the way, the 203-tower radio system has been a no-bid, over-cost, and way-late example of all that can go wrong with a state project. Throw in allegations of political influence and, to some, MARCS long ago became a synonym for boondoggle.

Now that it's done, state officials claim that the system can still fulfill its original purpose: skirting the patchwork of radio systems used by law enforcement and other agencies with mobile voice, data, vehicle location, and computer-aided dispatching capability around the state, and even across state lines, on the 800 mhz frequency.

That may be the case, but the concept, now nearly a quarter of a century old, cannot be far from being supplanted by something new and better. That's the penalty for dithering and delay on a high-tech project.

Moreover, Ohio officials have had to communicate the old-fashioned way during any number of emergency events that have occurred during MARCS' 24-year gestation, including the 1990 Shadyside flood and the 1993 Lucasville prison riot.

Even if MARCS has been fortified technologically, it has a long way to go before it becomes the be-all and end-all of emergency communication systems for Ohio. It has 19,000 users - including 14 state agencies and all 88 county sheriff's departments and emergency management agencies - but even more potential users are not hooked up.

Local authorities must provide their own equipment; the state isn't paying for that. However, the system does cover all but a small fraction of the state, including spots where cell phones won't work. Michigan already has such a system, adding communication flexibility during a regional emergency.

No one questions the need for authorities to have secure statewide radio service during weather emergencies or, God forbid, a terrorist attack.

But it's a crying shame that it took 24 years to put MARCS on line.



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