Making Alaska safer is a top priority for this administration, and to that end, much progress has been made.
Quality service delivery is dependent on attracting and retaining a skilled workforce. For years, the Alaska Department of Public Safety has struggled with vacancies. Last August, the department had 43 Alaska State Trooper vacancies. Today, every Trooper position is filled. A new crop of recruits is preparing for future service at the Training Academy in Sitka. Upon completion of an 18-week academy program and 15 weeks of field training, they will be at work protecting our communities.
This is an encouraging development, but recruitment efforts won't stop there. The department will continue to find new Troopers to keep up with the natural attrition of personnel, looking both inside and outside Alaska, and with efforts to recruit rural Alaskans, women and returning members of our National Guard.
We are focusing on Village Public Safety Officer program improvements and expanded services for 15 villages in fiscal year 2009, and are working with legislators for 15 more in fiscal year 2010.
We're proud of the success of our search-and-rescue efforts. Last year, DPS participated in more than 694 search-and-rescue-related events and saved 460 lives. This could not have happened without our partnership with volunteers, military and community organizations. In fact, 2,794 responders have committed more than 22,988 man hours and 995 aircraft hours to ensure the safe return of Alaskans and visitors to the state.
Crime in Alaska is far too often fueled by alcohol. The department has had success cracking down on bootleggers. In 2008, our alcohol and drug enforcement unit seized more than 1,000 gallons of bootlegged alcohol, representing an approximate street value of close to half a million dollars, and importation arrests were up by more than 30 percent. Overall, the unit served more than 400 search warrants and filed more than 2,000 charges for prosecution. In addition to our record-setting illegal alcohol seizures, we also seized approximately $18.5 million in illegal narcotics, with significant increases in the seizures of imported heroin and methamphetamine. In 2008, the unit seized almost 5,000 grams of heroin with a street value of $1.4 million - more than four times the amount seized in 2007.
Something DPS has established to help make our roads safer is the new Bureau of Highway Patrol. Based out of Fairbanks, Palmer and Soldotna, three teams consisting of troopers and local law enforcement officers will have statewide jurisdiction and will work to reduce fatalities and major injury collisions through proactive, sustained and high-visibility enforcement, education and technology. The focus will be on impaired driving enforcement, seatbelt enforcement, aggressive driving and speeding enforcement, young driver education and collision investigations.
Progress continues with the current lab and a new lab. At our current lab, analysts have been hired, trained and certified, and robotics have been introduced. The casework backlog that had grown over the years has been significantly reduced and the Combined DNA Index System (or CODIS) database backlog will be eliminated by July 2009. We also received notice that outsourcing of additional lab work, if necessary to protect public safety, would be supported. As for work toward a new lab, a $1-a-year lease has been negotiated with the Municipality of Anchorage for a site on Tudor Road, and construction site preparation is in progress. We continue working together with the governor's office, the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and legislators through a thorough due diligence process to determine the right design. Material costs have actually dropped significantly since the last estimate, so Alaskans may see some timely cost savings.
We're encouraged by all the positive developments at DPS, and we appreciate the governor's strong support of the department as we move forward. Alaskans can be assured of the state's strong commitment to ensuring that our communities are safe places to live for all of us.
Joe Masters is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety.
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