Problems plague new radio system

COVINGTON - There are problems with the county's new public safety radio network, including dead spots where police and firemen can't communicate, but they will be resolved, a representative from the system manufacturer told commissioners at a work session Tuesday afternoon.

The work session was called at the request of District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, who said he has talked with public safety personnel who are concerned that the system is not operating up to standard.

The issue of greatest concern to Ewing is dead spots, or areas where the radios don't work.

Ewing said these spots aren't only in outlying areas of the county, but within Covington city limits. He said Covington police officers had trouble communicating with the dispatch center while responding to a recent armed robbery call.

"As a commissioner, what I'm trying to do is to be sure we don't place our employees at risk who depend on that radio system. I call it their lifeline," he said on Wednesday. "I've been hearing ever since this went online eight months ago that we need to check on this system, that it's not operating at the capacity that we were promised."

E-911 Director Mike Smith said that while there have been a few kinks since the system went online in August, every effort is being made to resolve any ongoing problems.

Smith said that manufacturer Tyco Electronics Inc. promised 90 percent coverage in buildings with a portable radio, a very high coverage rate.

"We've got more coverage than we've got dead spots," he said. "With this new system, there are going to be dead spots, and we are going to have to identify those. They have been pretty much where Tyco said they would be."

Fire Chief Mike Satterfield said Wednesday that his firefighters have found themselves without coverage, without warning in the past.

"We discovered (dead) areas by happenstance, which is very dangerous. We didn't know we didn't have coverage until we got there," he said.

A backup system called a VTAC, a mobile unit that acts as a booster to get a signal even in areas without coverage, wasn't turned on for months after the system went online.

"Some of those issues, like the VTAC system, should have been worked on and working the day we flipped the switch because we knew we were going to have dead spots," Satterfield said.

The VTAC has been used twice in recent weeks at Factory Shoals Park, to retrieve the body of a drowning victim and for a swift water rescue. Both times it worked well, he said.

Ryan Currie, acting as site manager for Tyco, said there has been interference with a cell tower that has at times affected audio in a half-mile area in the city of Covington.

Currie presented the board with a list of about a dozen problems with the radio system that have been resolved or still need work.

Included in that list was the repair of 12 portable radios, which he said had been delayed but should be done within days.

Satterfield said about half of those radios belong to his department. Some were turned in for repairs as far back as December.

While the department was given some replacement radios, "That's a big issue, because these are brand new portable radios, so what's wrong?" he said.

Currie said he is working daily to address problems and has taken up temporary residence in Covington until everything is resolved.

"It is a work in progress. We will continue to work on this ... Tyco does not abandon us at all. We are getting a good level of customer service from them," Smith said.

Ewing said he was pleased to hear that Tyco is committed to staying the course until all issues are resolved.

"I feel a great deal of responsibility for being sure that the system works. This is the first time I've heard anybody, except the people who use it every day, admit that we've got a problem," he said.

Satterfield said his confidence in the system is growing, noting that when it came online, "We had a basketful of issues we were dealing with and today we have a small handful of issues. There has been steady and consistent progress."

"The system we've got now is running better than any system we've had," he added. "I feel much better about it today that I did just a few weeks ago."

The new system has been touted by public safety officials for its ability to allow all departments - including law enforcement, fire and EMS - to communicate seamlessly with each other.

The 800 MHz OpenSky digital voice and data radio network is similar to the system used by the Pentagon, a sales manager with Tyco told the Citizen in an earlier interview.

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 is being funded through $4.5 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenues.