Portland, OR, Sep 09, 2011 -- In the ten years since 9/11, communities across the nation have worked to strengthen and modernize their emergency response systems. For small towns and rural communities hit hard by tough economic times, however, the cost burden of upgrading—or simply maintaining—emergency facilities, vehicles and equipment is simply too much.
“With the state’s population concentrated in a handful of urban centers, Oregon’s vast rural landscape is dotted with hundreds of small, remote communities where delivery of high-quality health care and emergency services presents a unique set of challenges,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Vicki Walker.
“Despite having a small tax base and limited revenues, these communities still need to fund vital services, including the capacity to respond to emergency situations,” Walker said.
To help meet these needs in rural Oregon, USDA Rural Development has made grants and loans available through the Community Facilities program to finance facilities including modern police stations and emergency call centers, as well as equipment such as police cruisers and computers across the state.
Emergency Preparedness Funding in Oregon
Notable among these projects is the recently opened Klamath 9-1-1 call center in Klamath Falls, where first responders from across the county celebrated the state-of-the-art facility’s grand opening in June. USDA Rural Development funded construction with a $1.7 million loan. In addition, a $19,920 grant was awarded for the purchase of critical equipment.
“We had been in need of a safe, adequate, county-wide 9-1-1 communications center for many years and were unable to secure conventional funding,” said Jeanine Dilley, Klamath 9-1-1 Communications District Executive Director.
Today, the new facility provides the only public safety dispatch point for the entire 6,100 square-mile county, serving 68,000 residents and coordinating services from 27 public safety agencies.
In another large-scale effort, USDA Rural Development provided an $8 million direct loan and a $10.5 million loan guarantee for a 35,000 square foot addition to Lake District Hospital in Lakeview, Oregon. The funding allowed the hospital to open the doors to a new patient wing, laboratory and pharmacy along with updated emergency triage, imaging, surgery, and cardio pulmonary departments. The expansion has improved medical services available to 45,000 rural residents in remote southeastern Oregon and northern California, who will benefit from the same high quality of health care available at large, urban institutions.
The Winston Police Department in rural Douglas County was awarded $25,600 in grants last year to purchase two new patrol cars, which can run upwards of $35,000 apiece. Additional funds are in process now for a third cruiser.
“Had we not had those grants, we’d be down a patrol car right now,” said Chief Scott Gugel, who operates a force of eight full-time officers with just five vehicles.
“USDA has been a lynchpin in helping us acquire those needed items that otherwise would have been put off or would not have happened,” Gugel said.
“These are just a few examples of how our Community Facilities program provides much-needed support to help rural communities respond to local emergencies—in addition to funding libraries, schools, community centers and other public facilities,” Walker said.
Increased Investments in Emergency Communications Services Expected
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced changes in federal regulations that further improve the ability of rural communities to obtain advanced emergency communications services, including 9-1-1 access to better respond to emergencies and disasters. These changes will help rural communities obtain next generation 9-1-1 services necessary to maintain the security and safety of rural residents and businesses.
USDA published in the Federal Register interim telecommunications loan program eligibility requirements on financing the construction of interoperable, integrated public safety communications networks in rural areas. Funding for the program will be provided by USDA Rural Development through the Rural Utilities Service (RUS).
The new eligibility criteria would allow USDA to leverage public and private resources to speed the rural deployment of dual-use public safety/commercial wireless networks, address homeland security communications needs along America's rural international borders, and finance enhanced 9-1-1 capabilities for carriers and communities. Advantages include the ability to precisely locate rural wireless 9-1-1 calls, contact 9-1-1 via text message, or send emergency responders photos or videos of crime scenes or accidents. The new regulation would also give RUS ability to finance wireless upgrades for public safety and security.