PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Steve Jennings 2009 HONOREE

Chief information Officer, Harris County, Texas

Steve Jennings

Hurricane Ike hit near Houston last September with a brutal storm surge, and then high winds tore up what wasn't washed away. Federal, state and local officials had spent days preparing for the storm. Steve Jennings had been getting ready for almost 25 years.

Jennings came to Harris County from New York in 1984. Shortly after he arrived, he was troubled to find that Texas' largest county had 15 separate public-safety radio systems and not all of them could talk to each other. Jennings began experimenting with a new 800 MHz system to replace outdated and incompatible devices. He rolled it out slowly and delicately, starting in just a few precincts. First responders are a "picky crowd," Jennings says. He wanted to make sure the system worked before he pried familiar equipment out of their hands. But he also wasn't going to let inertia or stubbornness get in the way of the emergency communications system the county desperately needed.

Jennings' strategy worked, and his network kept growing, both in Harris County and beyond. Now, there are 301 different federal, state and local agencies using the radio system. They're located in 14 different Texas counties and 102 different cities, and they all can communicate with one another during emergencies. If radio static was a big problem in the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, it's not a concern in southeast Texas. During Ike, the system worked "phenomenally," Jennings says. It also held up during Hurricane Rita in 2005.

Jennings retired two months ago. But the radio system he created just keeps on getting bigger.

— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Eric Kayne