E911 upgrade to help officers

Published 12:23 pm Friday, July 13, 2012

OFF A DIRT ROAD near the border between Georgia and Florida, Lt. Rick Ashley of the Sheriff’s Office demonstrates what is known as the “Statue of Liberty” technique, holding their portable radio aloft as high as they can in an attempt to have their radio traffic heard by E911 dispatchers in Bainbridge.

The E911 radio system that is used to communicate with law enforcement, firefighters and EMS personnel in Decatur and Grady counties is about to undergo major changes, some of which could help the emergency responders on the job.

Five local governments are partnering with each other to share the cost of upgrading their respective radio systems, after the Federal Communications Commission ordered some technical changes be made by Dec. 31, 2012.

Currently, when someone calls 911, a dispatcher takes the call and then uses unique radio frequencies to talk to emergency responders as they travel to a call. Decatur and Grady counties share a radio system, with all communications depending on a 480-foot-tall radio tower that is located at the Sheriff’s Office on Spring Creek Road.

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The 911 radio tower beams the dispatcher’s voice to an emergency responder, whose response is transmitted using either a portable radio handset or a more powerful radio mounted in a vehicle. Repeaters and a microwave radio system are used to bounce signals over to Grady County and back.

Local leaders decided to convert the Decatur-Grady 911 system from a broadband analog system to a narrowband digital system to comply with the FCC’s order. After the switchover is completed in December, the frequencies used by the system will remain the same, however, all of its users will have to use new digital radios. Those radios and other equipment will be replaced or upgraded as part of a $3.57 million contract with Motorola.

The Sheriff’s Office, including jail operations, will have to replace approximately 60 vehicle-based radios and approximately 40 handheld radios, according to Undersheriff Wendell Cofer.

Countywide, across five different agencies, equipment to be replaced includes 274 portable radios, 247 vehicle-mounted radios and 50 pagers, Decatur-Grady E911 Director Tonya Griffin said.

THE DECATUR-GRADY E911 radio tower, which is located at the Sheriff’s Office on Spring Creek Road, stands approximately 480 feet tall and was constructed in 1995. The 911 radio tower is seen at left — the smaller tower at right is used for wireless communications within the Decatur County Jail.

In addition to upgrading the Spring Creek Road tower, a second tower located on State Route 97 South will be fitted with equipment to improve the coverage of the 911 radio signal. Upgrades will also be made to an 81-foot tower located behind the Bainbridge Public Safety station on Shotwell Street.

All of the agencies that use the system should benefit from clearer audio quality and increased coverage area for communications, Griffin said.

That’s good news for sheriff’s deputies in particular, who have 600 square miles of land in the county to patrol. Under the current radio system, deputies sometimes struggle to “get out” — or be heard — while using their handheld radios in remote areas, Cofer said. While a car-mounted radio transmits using 100 watts of power, a handheld radio only uses five watts, creating a weaker signal that could be degraded by weather conditions and terrain.

“We find that we rapidly lose our radio signal around Attapulgus and the Recovery community, due to the lower terrain,” Cofer said. “We have a fairly high call volume around Attapulgus because it’s a population center, so we’re hoping the new digital system will make things better.”

On a recent day, Lt. Rick Ashley of the Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of a stolen car off Simmons-McIntyre Road, right next to the Georgia-Florida border off U.S. Highway 27 South. Ashley could use the radio in his patrol car but while out on foot, his attempts to contact E911 from his portable radio were unsuccessful.

Sometimes deputies have to hold their portable radio as high up as they can reach, in an effort to get out — sometimes they are heard. Other times they can be heard, but only weakly, Ashley said.

“There is a lot of policing done by cell phone at present, assuming they are near a cell tower,” Cofer said.

While the upgrading of the State Route 97 South tower is expected to improve coverage essentially county-wide, future upgrades may be necessary to make sure that emergency responders’ radio signals can be transmitted around Climax and Attapulgus, officials said.

One example of how large an area emergency responders have to cover: the traveling distance between the Mount Pleasant community off State Route 97 North and Booster Club Road in the southwestern corner of the county is 50 miles.

“It’s important to have radio contact because if a 911 dispatcher can’t get in touch with a deputy in the field, the rest of us have to assume that he could be in trouble and send backup,” Cofer said. “That EMT performing CPR or a deputy fighting for his life needs help quick and it could be several minutes away.”

According to Griffin, the new system is also expected to fix that both Fire and Rescue and the county’s volunteer firefighters sometimes have communicating with each other.

Bainbridge Public Safety officers, who handle both police and fire protection duties, will benefit from the new system, too, although they have less ground to cover. In addition to hearing clearer audio, officers won’t be affected by “frequency bleedover” as much as before — there will be equipment in place to help filter out noise from other radio systems that use a similar frequency as BPS, such as in Valdosta, Ga., Griffin said.

Motorola is currently building the new digital system’s infrastructure in Motorola’s Schaumburg, Ill., facility. It is estimated it would take approximately 75 days to build and ship the equipment, meaning that installation is projected to start Oct. 15.

Training for the government employees will begin in early November. The projected date to be completely ready to go online with the system is Dec. 17.