CNN Senior National Editor
The call came in to the Kansas City, Missouri fire dispatch center at 3:44am. A blind resident reported his three-story apartment building was on fire, and feeling heat on the other side of his door, was unable to escape.
“This is the scary time for fire departments”, Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said. Middle of the night fire calls mean the greatest danger, especially in large apartment buildings, with residents often asleep.
Operators using the public safety radio system immediately sent 22 firefighters to help, dispatching three engine and two ladder companies to the scene in the city’s Westport neighborhood. At least they thought they did.
But a minute later, when no fire trucks answered the call, dispatchers realized something was wrong. They called Station 19, Battalion 106 to make sure the units were responding, and were told the fire never came over the radio.
The antiquated radio system had gone down, and none of the city’s 34 fire houses could hear emergency calls. Dispatchers used telephones to get the units on their way, but as more 911 calls came in from the apartment house, they were unable to relay updated information to them.
Firefighters were able to rescue the trapped man who made the 911 call, as well as an injured resident found during the search of the smoke-filled building. Despite a three-minute delay in sending help because of the radio failure, no one was badly hurt that morning.
Dyer called the radio system failure a “critical incident…life-threatening”. And its cause: an aging part the manufacturer no longer makes. The replacement part they used to fix it during the 20-minute outage was bought on the internet. The system is 17 years old, and they call around the country to find spare parts for it. “A last resort”, he said, “is buying them on eBay.”
Kansas City is now trying to replace the radio system, at an estimated cost of at least $30 million. But the financially-strapped city is wrestling with how to pay for the project. Their hope is the economic stimulus package.
The radio system will be on the city’s wish list for its share of the federal money. And as evidenced by the October 26th radio incident, no one would argue it isn’t vital and much-needed project. But it is an example from America’s heartland of a debate being played out in virtually every community around the nation.
Does this ultimately have anything to do with fixing the economy, and should it be part of the stimulus bill? Among a list of thousands of local projects, there is disagreement over where development stops, and pork begins.
There’s no question in Chief Dyer’s mind. “To me, a city’s communications system is part of any city’s infrastructure, like sewers, bridges and roadways.” He said the project would be labor-intensive, “just like building a bridge. A city cannot operate” without the upgrades “in this day and age”.
Assistant City Manager Rich Noll said “we believe it qualifies” for the stimulus help. The contract will be awarded to one of two electronics companies, though neither one is based in Missouri.
“It’s not like pouring concrete or laying steel”, he said, “But a lot of individuals are part of this kind of project. Engineers, installers, maintenance workers”.
Noll said elected officials in Missouri have been supportive of the proposal.
But Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalek, a critic of the size of the stimulus bill, said the emergency radio project does not belong on the list. “It’s not a legitimate request”, he told CNN. He said the city should use its own money to buy the system.
“Is that something you couldn’t possibly do without the stimulus money? The answer is no”.
Abouhalek argued city officials are “jumping on the bandwagon”, when they should have been setting aside money to buy the new system. He called it a “game of financial gotcha, They just want the (federal government) to pay for it.” He said the cost spread out over several years could be paid for with bonds.
The columnist said the project is “important, but it’s not something building for the future.” He said the project would do little to create work in the Kansas City area, a key to the stimulus package. “I’d rather have the money go towards a bridge with local jobs.”
The non-partisan group Concord Coalition has been closely watching developments on the bill and requests around the nation. The watchdog group last week outlined criteria it wanted to see used for spending to bolster the economy. They wrote “Fiscal responsibility means investing wisely in projects that will contribute positively to economic growth, and being willing to pay for those worthwhile projects over time. On both fronts, policymakers should not confuse the size of our economic problems with the benefits of various policy options”.
Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert Bixby said there is “tension between spending the money and spending the money wisely.” Nationally, he said, it is a “politicians’ delight. You have an excuse to spend money and cut taxes at the same time.
But the Kansas City project, like much of the stimulus debate, comes with no easy answers. Bixby said it was a “worthwhile thing, something all communities will need but doesn’t sound like a” provider of jobs.
He said an argument can be made that the $30 million contract and work connected to the project “could be stimulus. For the broader economy, it doesn’t matter where the jobs are.”
“You don’t spend willy-nilly”, he said, “but it’s not like a study of moose calls effect on the crops.” Unlike many projects on local lists, he said the radio system is not “inherently silly. A lot of stuff that gets in there, you have to shake your head. Why would anybody put this in with a straight face, thinking it would stimulate the economy. A lot of parasites are hitching a ride.”
Kansas City is looking at other options to pay for the radio system if they don’t get the stimulus money. It is one of many complicated budget issues they, like most cities, are trying to solve as the economy further tightens money.
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