New radio system goes 'beyond expectations'

COVINGTON - Public safety in Newton County got a big boost a few weeks ago, when a new digital radio network came online.

The new system allows all public safety departments - including law enforcement, fire and EMS - and all public works departments to communicate seamlessly with each other. Not only that, but radio coverage has been greatly expanded, and communication with surrounding counties is now possible.

"Delivery of services to the citizens of Newton County has just gotten much better," said Mike Smith, director of Covington-Newton County 911.

Previously the county operated on analog or VHF systems.

The new 800 MHz OpenSky digital voice and data radio network,

manufactured by Tyco Electronics Wireless Systems, "gives the utmost efficiency using the radio spectrum," Smith said.

The system has 10 channels providing 40 talk paths and up to 65,000 talk groups.

Under the old system "there was one channel, one frequency, one talk path, one talk group," he said.

Previously, public safety personnel could only communicate via dispatchers at the 911 center, but now they're able to speak directly to each other, a plus when an emergency or crime crosses jurisdictional boundaries, said Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols.

They can also communicate with surrounding counties, such as Rockdale, and with state agencies.

"It allows us to talk seamlessly with surrounding counties, even those with disparate systems," Smith said.

The system also gives more complete coverage. In the past, outlying areas such as Jackson Lake were dead spots, but now, 98 percent of the county is covered, Nichols said.

It also provides a higher security level, since scanners can't pick it up, he said.

The system has been up and running for about three weeks.

"It's worked beyond expectations," Nichols said.

Plus, it's easier to maintain on a day-to-day basis, according to Smith.

The project has been about eight years in the making, according to Nichols.

The state initially was to fund a conversion of local systems to allow for interoperability, but that promise never materialized due to lack of funding.

Instead, some of the larger counties funded their own conversions. Newton County voters agreed to fund the local system at roughly $4.5 million, through special purpose local option sales tax revenues.

"The biggest thing is now we have achieved true interoperability here in Newton County. Every day we're told by people that we're setting an example," Smith said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.