Central New York’s Emergency Radio Goes Digital

John Berry / The Post-StandardA new $102 million digital emergency radio system will link police, fire and rescue agencies in even the most remote areas, such as Oneida Lake’s Big Bay, where members of the Brewerton and Constantia fire departments recently took part in an advanced ice rescue training class.

Syracuse, NY — A Camillus police officer who saw an unoccupied patrol car get hit from behind last month couldn’t alert 911 about the driver’s injury because of a “dead spot” in emergency radio coverage. A second officer heard the call and relayed the message. Onondaga County sheriff’s deputies and Syracuse officers experience a different frustration: Patrolling officers from the two departments cannot talk by police radio without asking a 911 dispatcher to connect them. And Phoenix firefighters who cover Oswego and Onondaga counties have another concern: They are dispatched from two radios because the counties’ systems are incompatible. These glitches are expected to be fixed by a $102 million communication system that will link four counties, require retraining of police and fire personnel, and affect thousands who tune in to police and fire radio traffic. Volunteer firefighters, police officers, paid firefighters, paramedics, journalists and scores of police and fire buffs will have to scrap their analog scanner for a digital model that costs five to six times more. The area’s 15,000 public safety personnel who use two-way radios will need new devices three to five times their former cost.
Why now? Onondaga County’s upgrade to its 40-year-old radio system begins gradually next month. For some, it’s long overdue.
“We’re one of the dinosaurs to make this change,” said Manlius Police Capt. Bill Bleyle, who is coordinating the project among Onondaga County police departments. “I can’t talk to Syracuse police right now, unless I had one of their radios.”
A study as far back as 2000 found the county needed a new system. That was highlighted by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City when emergency responders coming from across the country couldn’t communicate because their radios didn’t work together, Bleyle said.
The chief of the Phoenix Fire Department, which straddles the border of Oswego and Onondaga counties, said his firefighters aren’t able to use their primary radios to communicate with departments in Onondaga County or the 911 center there.
At a fire scene, all the departments involved rely on antiquated, low-band radios to talk to one another.
“It’s a safety issue,” Chief Robert Kingsley Jr. said. “You’re got to be able to communicate.”
Covering more ground. Digital signals can go longer distances, meaning someone in Manlius can reach someone on Skaneateles Lake, which was impossible before, Bleyle said. Agencies in different counties will be able to communicate on one system.
The new system is guaranteed by the manufacturer to work in 97 percent of each county, officials said. But tests in Onondaga County show the coverage will be above 99 percent, said county E-911 Center Director John Balloni.
Now, hilly towns like Tully and southern Camillus have spotty coverage.
Kingsley was impressed by the system’s far reach. A demonstration for firefighters this month had people talking to each other from Bridgeport, Tully and Lysander — the farthest corners of Onondaga County.
“That was phenomenal,” Kingsley said. “Today, you can’t do that.”
The new signal will also penetrate buildings better, said Brewerton Fire Chief Duane Otis. He often has trouble talking to firefighters inside burning buildings.
“It’s very depressing and frustrating to me when I can’t talk to my firefighters from outside,” Otis said.
Oswego County is building additional towers so signals can be picked up in 15 places, as opposed to the current six locations. Now, portable radios only work around Fulton and Oswego.
“It’s going to be a huge undertaking,” said emergency communications director Michael Allen. ’’Basically, what we’re doing is tripling the system.”
Current coverage in Madison County is terrible south of Route 20, leaving responders in towns such as Hamilton, DeRuyter and Lebanon unable to communicate with 911, said Paul Hartnett, director of the county’s Emergency Communications Center. He said coverage is as low as 75 percent in some areas.
Who’s affected? More than 9,000 firefighters, 4,000 ambulance workers and 2,000 police officers respond to calls in Cayuga, Madison, Onondaga and Oswego counties.
Police and fire personnel will get new radios. Ambulance workers — except Rural/Metro in Syracuse — will make the switch. Rural/Metro Inc. is dispatched using its own radio system based on calls from the 911 center.
Non-public safety agencies can also use the system. In Oswego County, for example, Department of Public Works, Social Services and other government agencies will communicate on new radios, said Allen, the communications director.
In Onondaga, municipal agencies, like schools, highway departments and the Syracuse Housing Authority will switch over.
Anyone who uses a scanner to hear radio traffic will need to buy a new, more expensive scanner, too.
What about the costs? Onondaga County’s system will cost $36 million, including the construction of three new signal towers, new equipment at the 911 center and 5,000 digital radios, Balloni said. It will be paid for by bonds, grants and a 65-cents-a-month surcharge on landline phones. Most of the nearly $4.5 million in grant money is security-related.
Oswego County is budgeting $25 million; Madison County, $19 million; and Cayuga County, $22 million.
The counties will pay the initial costs of radios and training, but departments are on their own after that.
Two fire chiefs said the counties are employing a “train the trainer” approach in which a few firefighters will learn the new system and train everyone else.
“I think it’s going to be fairly easy,” Kingsley said.
Kingsley and Otis said they are bracing for the increased price tag. The county will buy a radio for every one the department already owns, but “everything after that, you’ve got to buy,” Kingsley said.
Otis said firefighters have to accept better technology is going to cost more.
Balloni said he expects the cost to go down as the technology becomes more widely used.
The digital radios cost $1,500 to $2,800, compared with $300 to $900 for an analog one.
Nu-Tronics, a James Street store, expects to sell up to 50 scanners a month this year, priced between $500 and $600 each, said owner Al Tompkins. That’s five to six times more per month than he sold last year, when they cost about $100.
How the radio system works
The communications system can handle all Onondaga County radio traffic on 30 frequencies, compared to the roughly 80 frequencies used now.
A frequency acts as a lane on an emergency communications highway. The lanes are traveled by agencies which use channels as their vehicles.
Under the current system, every channel needs its own frequency. Under the new system, multiple channels can use the same frequency without interference because a computerized traffic cop prioritizes the calls.
The federal government has told public safety agencies to be more efficient in the number of radio frequencies they use by 2011. An increase in use of cell phones, wireless Internet and even credit card readers at gas pumps have increased competition for radio bandwidth, said Manlius Police Capt. Bill Bleyle.
The new system will use fewer frequencies to pick up more channels. The digital radios can pick up 512 channels — including ones dedicated to national emergencies — while the current ones pick up 16 channels, Bleyle said.
When will it go live?
Onondaga County will roll out its digital communications systems in early February, starting with roughly 500 Syracuse police officers. County police agencies will follow in early March. City and volunteer firefighters will make the switch last.
Madison and Oswego counties should go live in late 2011 or early 2012. Cayuga County is still in the planning stages.

By Douglass Dowty / The Post-Standard

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