When a fire burned for days in October in a corner of the Pine Barrens, causing road closures and evacuations, Burlington County safety officials were able to talk to police officers, firefighters, and state Forest Fire Service members on one radio system.
It was a faster-than-before communications method for the county's Emergency Operations Center, which is testing a military system that allows agencies such as the state police, fire departments, highway departments and the National Weather Service, and even power companies to talk without switching among radio and phone systems.
"No matter who you are, if you've got a voice capability on a phone or radio, you can talk on this," said Kevin Tuno, coordinator for the Burlington County Office of Emergency Management.
The system, which has been housed below the dispatch center in Westampton since September, could be used during major snowstorms, natural disasters, or a terrorist attack.
The ability to communicate with as many agencies as possible on one network could prove invaluable, said David Wyche, assistant public information officer for the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
"You learn during a disaster that time is of the essence and communication is essential," he said.
Burlington County is the first civilian agency to try out the technology, developed for nuclear submarines. L3 Communications Systems, the Camden-based company that developed the technology for the Navy, is looking into how it can be applied to agencies outside of the military. It approached Burlington County about a free trial.
L3 installed consoles in September, then trained Burlington County officials in how to use them. The county has been providing feedback about how to make the system better for general use, said Robert Montgomery, L3's director of homeland security programs.
County officials have responded positively, and Montgomery said the company was talking to other counties to gauge interest.
For now, the system will stay in Burlington County free of charge "until they decide they don't want it anymore," Montgomery said.
The consoles use digital technology that most law enforcement agencies already have, Montgomery said, meaning it is not as costly as some officials might assume. Installing a system like what Burlington County has would cost about $750,000, Montgomery said, and would require no investment in new radios.
Law enforcement agencies have sought to better integrate their emergency management systems since the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, during both of which they could not communicate adequately.
In Philadelphia, a $62 million digital Motorola radio system purchased in 2002 has been plagued with malfunctions and at least 16 crashes, leading some critics to demand that it be overhauled.
Tuno said he and other officials were happy with L3's system. It can provide him with more information from more sources, he said, which can better inform his decisions.
In addition to connecting the agencies, people can call into the system from emergency scenes and even broadcast to the radio system. The radio also can call out, meaning multiple agency heads can be connected in seconds from any location.
Perhaps best of all, Tuno said, is that it is simple to use.
"I'm not a radio technician; I'm a field operator," he said. "I want to be able to just push a button and find out what's going on, and this gives me that."