New radio system keeps deputies — and community — safer
Thanks to a new radio system, law enforcement officers in Columbia County can avoid some of the dangerous scenarios that can occur because of poor communication.
“Any time we can just change the channel and talk directly to someone, that’s huge,” says Patrol Division Captain Sharif Chochol. “Because in a crisis, most of the times when things go bad, it’s because of communication. Communication is huge, and what we’ve done is enhance that, and it’s priceless.”
For years, Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle wanted a new communications system to replace the old VHF system, but because of restrictions put on the use of money from the 911 fund, they weren’t able to fund the radios.
State law directed that the special taxes applied to phone service be used for the construction and operation of 911 centers, but not the communications systems that would link those centers to the officers on the street.
Recently, however, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation allowing for that money to be used for radio communications. That, timed with the construction of the county’s broadband network, allowed the sheriff to make the change, which came just in time, since restrictions on the frequencies they were allowed to use were making the old VHF system increasingly less effective as well as more expensive to operate.
The Federal Communications Commission has required public safety and industrial license holders to migrate toward a lower frequency range, a multi-year process that was finalized at the first of this year. The move allows for the creation of additional channels to support more users, but it has also resulted in limiting the effectiveness of law enforcement’s communication.
Whittle would often demonstrate the problem deputies faced with the old system by adopting the “Statue of Liberty” pose — holding the portable radio with its antenna high in the air while talking into the shoulder-mounted microphone. It’s the law enforcement version of the old Verizon commercial — “Can you hear me now?”
“The FCC is doing that to allow room for other people so a lot of users can come on,” Chochol says. “But each time you narrowband, the signal penetrates less or travels less.”
To accommodate the loss of penetration, which has been phased in over a number of years, the sheriff’s office added antennas.
“When the old system was originally put in, there was one tower to cover the entire county,” Chochol says. “VHF carried it a pretty good ways, but as the narrowbanding happened, we added some sites, we put some antennas on some water towers and rented some space on another tower. So what you would do — if you were close to one of those sites, it would take that information and send it back through the air to that main site, which would send it back to the 911 Center.”
It was putting a Band-Aid on the problem, but it carried them for a while. The problem with Band-Aids is that is that they cost money and they’re only temporary.
And there were certain areas of the county where deputies simply wouldn’t be able to talk on their portable radios. Instead, they would have to go back and use the mobile radios in their cars, which were close to 100 watts and had a much larger antenna.
“With the old system, everybody had two radios,” Chochol says. “Everybody had a portable and everybody had a larger mobile. Now, we’re operating on portables with everybody.”
Though the upfront cost for the new system was significant — close to $7 million — the benefits have been equally significant, from increased sound quality to the savings in operations and maintenance that comes from eliminating all of the mobile radios. But without the county’s broadband network, which initially provided five towers and the buried fiber, the system would likely look a lot different.
“The broadband project itself probably saved us $4 million,” Chochol says. “For us to build each tower is about a half a million dollars, and I don’t know what it costs to run fiber.”
The Sheriff’s Department built two towers of their own that the county also uses, allowing the answers of each group’s needs to benefit the others’.
Had the county not invested in the broadband infrastructure, the sheriff’s office likely would have gone with a microwave system, which Chochol says would not have been as good.
“If you have a problem with one microwave, that microwave is out,” he says. “If we have a problem with one leg of the fiber, it’s just going back and finding a different route.”
That redundancy gives greater reliability and is mirrored thorough out the system.
“We have seven towers and each tower operates independently,” he says. “If one tower goes out, we’re still going to be able to operate the other six, and the chances of seven towers going out — that’s just not going to happen. But if it does, then you can go back to a conventional mode where you’re not talking through repeaters.”
With the new system, everything is repeated. Each message goes to the tower, gets sent to the 911 center and gets pushed back out. With the conventional mode, the message would be going from radio to radio in a line of site kind of way, which would at least allow limited communication even in the worst case scenario.
As for the radios themselves, the clarity is so good that when he was first given the new radio, Chochol mistook a radio transmission for a person in the room with him.
Though each portable radio is still three watts, they get far better penetration because of the 800 MHz system they are a part of, which allows them to talk on talk groups rather than channels.
If a deputy keys up his radio, the system is going to give him the first available frequency to talk on. As soon as he unkeys, it frees that frequency up for anyone else, which keeps the messages using the open space. Rather than keeping one frequency tied up for one channel, it allows one frequency for numerous channels.
Other features include texting, a private call feature that allows supervisors to have private conversations with individual deputies and GPS which, together with the emergency button, goes a long way toward protecting the lives of law enforcement officers.
“With the emergency feature, if somebody is in trouble, they can hat a button and it sends an emergency to everyone,” Chochol says. “And it doesn’t matter if somebody else is talking on the radio, it frees it up and lets the emergency take priority.”
And because deputies can get that reliable signal from a radio sending a constant GPS signal, anyone responding is going to know just where the deputy is. With the old system, GPS told them where the car was, which didn’t help if the deputy was in a foot pursuit.
The radio system has also allowed them to talk to other agencies, which they weren’t able to do directly before. The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office uses an older 800 MHz system and soon other Columbia County agencies will be on the same system, allowing that direct communication that’s so critical in an emergency situation.
And in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, where 20 children and six adults were shot by a gunman at a Connecticut elementary school, Chochol says it’s important for people to know that the campus police officers employed by Columbia County Schools operate on the same system. That allows the 911 center and other deputies to be able to communicate directly with the officer on the scene without the school having to call 911.
Previous to the new system, campus police radios couldn’t reach the 911 center, which made responding to an emergency kind of like a game of telephone, only with lives hanging in the balance.
Then, an officer would have to radio the school’s office, relay his message and the office would have to call 911. Then the 911 operator would have to put it back out and if the deputy had a question it would have to go back through the same system, as would the answer.
“Now, the officer switches over to our main channel and says, ‘I need a deputy over here,’ and the deputy says, ‘I’m on my way — where are you?’ The two middle men are cut out.”
Though the cost per handset is anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000, Chochol says the radios are built to military standards and have proved to be durable.
The only hitch, though law enforcement doesn’t consider it a hitch, is the fact that the radio communication does not show up on scanners.
“They’re encrypted, so the security features are high,” Chochol says. “I mean, if you build it, somebody out there is going to figure it out, but this is a pretty high level of encryption, and right now, you can’t get them on a scanner.”
And to him, that’s a good thing, because he says they often run into the fact that the bad guys they’re chasing have a scanner.
“We’ve had to use cell phones to go to certain areas, and there lies all kinds of problems, because everybody doesn’t know what’s going on,” Chochol says. “Ordinary, law abiding citizens don’t get to hear us, but there’s no way for us to open it up to just them. Once it’s open, it’s open.” You Might Also Like: