COVINGTON - Public safety and elected officials gathered at the Covington-Newton County 911 Center on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate a new public safety radio network.
The new system allows all public safety departments - including law enforcement, fire and EMS - to communicate seamlessly with each other.
Newton County is now one of the first counties in the state to achieve total interoperability between public safety agencies, and soon public works and utility departments will also be connected.
The need for interoperability was demonstrated during the Sept. 11 attacks, 911 Director Mike Smith said.
"It's been a buzzword around the country and state, and we made it happen," Smith said.
Calls have been coming in from agencies throughout the southeast to inquire about the new system, Smith said.
"We feel like we've got the best system out there technology-wise ... we've actually gone ahead of the standards," he said.
The new 800 MHz OpenSky digital voice and data radio network is manufactured by Tyco Electronics Wireless Systems and is similar to the system used by the Pentagon, according to James Potter, area sales manager for manufacturer Tyco Electronics Inc.
Previously the county operated on analog or VHF systems, and public safety personnel could only communicate via dispatchers at the 911 center, but now they're able to speak directly to each other.
They can also communicate with surrounding counties and with state agencies
The system also gives more complete coverage. In the past, outlying areas such as Jackson Lake were dead spots. But 98 percent of the county is now covered, Sheriff Joe Nichols previously told the Citizen.
It also provides a higher security level, since scanners can't pick it up, he said.
The system has been in use since August, but Wednesday's ceremony and ribbon-cutting was a chance to celebrate the years of hard work it took to get it going.
Charley English, director of Homeland Security for the state of Georgia, attended what officials termed the "Go Live" ceremony for the system.
"This is a celebration not just for the citizens of Newton County, but a celebration for the state of Georgia," he said.
English said Georgia has a strong public safety record due to good leadership and benevolence of its officials and residents. He thanked local public safety workers for their service on various boards and agencies.
Residents of Newton County also got high praise for agreeing to fund the $4.5 million system through special purpose local option sales tax revenues.
"They took it upon themselves to get it done and taxed themselves," Potter said.
"The bottom line is there are men and women in police uniforms, sheriff's uniforms, fire uniforms and on ambulances saving people's lives and they don't have to worry about how they're going to communicate," Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton added. "This is a small amount of money to spend for their peace of mind."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at email@example.com.