MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – One of the enduring images of the 1997 hunt for the man who killed four people in New Hampshire and wounded four others in Vermont was the inability of police from different agencies to talk to each other.

Scores of law enforcement officers from federal and state agencies poured into northern New Hampshire and northeastern Vermont in the hunt for Carl Drega, but at one point they had to park cruisers side-by-side so critical messages could be passed on to all who needed to hear them.

A decade and several million dollars later, the problems have been greatly reduced, although officials say there is still work to be done.

Now, Vermont State Police troopers can communicate with their colleagues from New Hampshire, Massachusetts or New York or Border Patrol agents with the flick of a switch on their cruiser radios.

“We’re not completely there, but we’re a lot better off,” said Newport Police Chief Paul Duquette, the chairman of Vermont Communications, a statewide first-responder organization working to improve emergency communications within the state.

On Aug. 19, 1997, Drega shot and killed two New Hampshire state troopers and then a judge and a newspaper editor who tried to stop him.

After the shootings, he disappeared for several hours and police from as far away as Maine and Massachusetts swarmed the area to hunt for him.

Drega crossed into Vermont, where he wounded two New Hampshire troopers, a New Hampshire conservation officer and then a Border Patrol agent before being shot to death by police on a back road in Brunswick.

But beyond the horrors of the crime itself, police were horrified by the shortcomings in their ability to communicate.

Within months U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., had found $1 million to help the Justice Department begin the fix.

In 2000, Leahy helped find millions of dollars in additional funding so the Vermont Department of Public Safety could carry out a $10 million digital microwave communications upgrade and other improvements.

Separately, the Drega incident prompted Leahy to help pass legislation that has helped police across the country buy more than 500,000 bulletproof vests.

New Hampshire State Police Col. Frederick Booth has said the Drega incident sped up efforts in that state to replace outdated radio system.

The state started by replacing police radio gear in cruisers, walkie-talkies and mountaintop relay equipment. Booth said all fire and rescue vehicles have compatible portable and mobile radios. The next step is replacing mountaintop and dispatch equipment for fire and rescue agencies.

Maine State Police Maj. Dale Lancaster said there had been “wide, sweeping improvements” in communications capability over the past 10 years. There are still problems regarding communication with agencies in other states.

“By the end of this year, we are working on a plan to minimize these interoperability deficiencies,” Lancaster said.

U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Mark Henry, who was in northern Vermont during the hunt for Drega and helped retransmit radio messages, said the incident let all agencies know they had to do more to work together.

Now they can talk via radio, but it goes further. Officials regularly train together for other emergencies.

“All of those things sometimes can get lost in the shuffle when the balloon goes up,” Henry said.

The communications upgrade process was accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has distributed millions of dollars in Vermont and New Hampshire to help improve emergency communications.

Duquette said there were police communications problems a year ago after the shootings at an Essex elementary school. “Within minutes the airwaves were so congested it was hard to get messages through,” Duquette said.

But last month during flooding in Barre, firefighters used the special frequencies to communicate directly with different police agencies and Vermont Emergency Management.

Barre Fire Chief Peter John said the city received the upgraded radios about a week before the floods.

“We were able to utilize different channels on the radio so nobody was interfering with anybody else, yet we could check to see what was going on,” John said. “It worked out perfect. It was great.”

AP-ES-08-20-07 1602EDT

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