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Public safety radio system getting fixed
Communication between cops, firefighters improving

COVINGTON - Problems with the county's new public safety radio network are being resolved, and the system is in better shape than it was just two months ago, based on a recent report by E-911 Director Mike Smith and representatives from the system vendor to the Board of Commissioners.

Commissioner Mort Ewing first raised concerns in April that there were dead spots where police and firefighters can't communicate. At the time, Ewing said he had received numerous complaints from public safety personnel that the system wasn't operating as expected, and that Covington police officers had trouble communicating with the dispatch center while responding to an armed robbery.

The most trouble appeared to be in the southern part of the county and in the city of Covington and northwest of the city.

Interference from cell towers was in part to blame, a problem that has been occurring nationwide, prompting the Federal Communications Commission to mandate a reconfiguration of the 800 MHz band for all public safety agencies.

That process has been successfully completed and addressed some of the problems with the local radio system, Smith said. Other adjustments have also been made to improve coverage.

"It's a matter of tuning and turning antennas in the right direction, getting the right mix of antennas, getting the best code in the radios, getting the right combination of everything," he said during a follow-up interview after his Tuesday night presentation to the board. "When you design these systems, it's all done on paper. It's all best theories, best guesses, best physics. You don't know what you're going to get until you turn the key and turn it on."

Since the rebanding and adjustments have been made to the system, the number of complaints have decreased drastically, Smith said.

From Aug. 5-30, there were 240 problems with radios, mostly in the Covington area, which has the highest call volume. During that time frame, there were about 7,500 calls, meaning about 3 percent of calls had problems, he said.

The number of problems dropped to 73 from Sept. 5 to Oct. 1, a 70 percent reduction in 30 days. As much as one-third of those problems were caused from testing being conducted on the system, Smith said. There were about 7,700 calls during that period, with problems occurring in fewer than 1 percent of calls.

"I think that's phenomenal," he said.

Fine-tuning is still being done to get optimum coverage, Smith said.

The contract with the vendor, Harris Corporation, calls for 90 percent coverage in buildings with a portable radio, a more rigid standard that what is typical in the industry, Smith said.

"We're very close to that. We're either meeting it or exceeding it," he said, noting that most issues now are not coverage-related, but are from garbled transmissions.

Much of the coverage problems that still exist are related to topography and varying elevations, he said.

"We will have dead spots. There's not a radio system vendor out there that will sell you on 100 percent coverage ... It's a matter of finding out where they are, are they where they were projected to be and are they acceptable where they're at, based on call volume," he said.

A problem with getting radios repaired and returned has also been resolved, Smith said.

Public safety personnel had complained that Harris kept the radios turned in for repair for months at a time. That was due to a hardware issue that caused the radios to emit an electric static discharge.

"Any time a radio came in for repair they held onto that radio because they didn't want to put it out in the field until they solved that problem," even if the radio had been sent in for an unrelated problem, he said.

Now, the hardware issue has been resolved and the turnaround time has improved, he said.

Smith noted that both vendors who made presentations to the county when the project was in its infant stages estimated the new system would cost $10-$12 million, but only $5 million was budgeted. Commissioners stipulated that transmitters could only be put in certain locations and not where they needed to be for optimum coverage.

"They had to work around some pretty strict standards, and I think they've done a pretty good job at that," Smith said.

Harris representatives have been in the county since before the system went online in August 2008 and are still here riding with public safety personnel to identify problem areas and make improvements, he said.

"It's a work in progress. It's a pretty large project; it's a daunting project. I am pleased with Harris sticking behind us and backing what they sold and being aggressive toward making it the best system it can be," he said.

Smith and the Harris representatives agreed to update commissioners again in 30 days.

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 vendor representative 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 $5 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenues.

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