IRRIGON - Emergency officials hope to bolster the ability of police and fire departments to communicate with each other during a potential accident at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

During the May drill, various agencies found they had limited communication with the Hermiston Safety Center, which became a "central command" during the drill. A damaged repeater antenna south of Heppner kept Hermiston fire officials from talking with staff at the Hermiston Community Center during the drill, Assistant Fire Chief Steve Frazier said.

Should an accident happen, the various fire and police forces would communicate on a single radio channel, separate from the channels each force uses for daily operations. This channel is dependent on a repeater to provide necessary coverage. Frazier said the various groups could communicate within themselves, but only with limited success using the channel spelled out in the plan, meaning potential delays in helping the public during an accident.

Emergency officials hope to solve this by ordering a tactical radio system that provides better coverage, but that is likely 18 months away. In the interim, officials must integrate different radio frequencies during an emergency.

This concept has grown increasingly difficult as more players began coordinating their efforts to prepare the region for a chemical accident. The depot stores 3,717 tons of chemical weapons two miles south of Irrigon.

A specialist told the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program Governing Board on Wednesday the antenna has been fixed, but the radio traffic issue remains.

Phil Hight, communications coordinator with Umatilla County CSEPP, is organizing an August drill to give emergency officials another shot at fine tuning their various radios, which broadcast on different frequencies. Some use UHF frequencies, and others use VHF frequencies.

"Keeping those systems all integrated and everyone connected is a real challenge," said Casey Beard, the Morrow County CSEPP director.

The proposed 450 MHz system would at least double the communications abilities of first responders. The current system provides one channel for talking with a central command post; the proposed system would offer six, Hight said, meaning a higher amount of communications could happen at the same time.

The counties and the state are debating who should take the lead role in getting the new system.

While officials list getting the 450 MHz system as a major step toward preparing the area for an accident at the depot, Hight said the counties can handle an emergency.

"In the event of an actual event (at the depot), I think we'd be OK because we do have communications available to us," he said.

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