New radio system would fix flaws
Safety forces’ communications can be hampered by rain, fog
WARREN — The ability of safety forces to communicate during an emergency shouldn’t depend on whether it is rainy or a heavy fog rolls in.
Trumbull County is one of only four counties in Ohio that has yet to transition to a radio communication system capable of communicating easily with public safety agencies, not just in the county or region, but statewide.
“We do not have a robust system in Trumbull County. If you leave the area of operation, you can’t communicate. If you have to transport an inmate to Cincinnati, you are out of communication. There is one department, that every time it rains, they get water in the lines. Another one, their radios don’t work in the fog. The system is analog, coming through on crowded bandwidth and the quality is just not there, it’s vulnerable,” said Ernest Cook, executive director of the Trumbull County 911 Center.
Cook is leading a push to fund a centralized system and to get local public safety departments to invest in new digital radios that work with the Multi-Agency Radio Communication System.
MARCS is administered through the Ohio Department of Administrative Service and is the state’s response to holes in public safety communication revealed during large-scale crisis incidents.
The inability of police and fire departments to communicate with other first responders using different radio systems in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was cited in the 9/11 Commission as an issue the country needed to address.
In Ohio, the 1990 Shadyside flood and 1993 Lucasville prison riot put pressure on lawmakers to create a system capable of remedying the interoperability problem. Construction on MARCS began in 2000, and in 2013, $90 million in upgrades expanded its service capacity.
Now all but four of Ohio’s 88 counties are on the digital communication network that uses fiber optics and microwaves for transmissions that sound “crystal clear,” Cook said.
There are about 300 MARCS towers in the state, with two already in Trumbull County. And, if a lightning strike, tornado or high winds take out a tower, MARCS guarantees emergency mobile towers will be delivered within four hours, Cook said.
Ten MARCS consoles, which would be installed at the 911 Center in Howland for dispatchers to communicate with emergency responders, will cost Trumbull County $1.13 million, according to an estimate from Motorola. Cook said the county would likely secure a five-to-10-year, low-interest bond to fund the consoles. The dual band consoles will be able to communicate with the old analogue radios most of the county’s departments have, Cook said.
Once the county has 300 digital radios on the system, MARCS will come in and do the infrastructure for the system for free, Cook said.
After the transition, the county will save $150,000 a year on maintenance of the current towers, Cook said. The system also charges $10 per radio on the system, but there are no other expenses, Cook said.
But, at $2,000 to $5,000 each, the MARCS-capable radios cost significantly more than analog radios that cost between $400 and $700, Cook said.
Cook is working to get local departments to consider upgrading to digital radios. He’s got the support of Warren police Chief Eric Merkel.
“Our radio system is at the end of its life, and we are ready to move on to something more comprehensive,” Merkel said.
The system the city’s police department uses now is 20 years old and dependent on crowded bandwidth that results in sometimes static-filled transmissions, Merkel said.
“It is being held together by some great technicians from Motorola. We have to look for parts online, and the sound quality is going down. We have to move onto something else, and the only option is to upgrade,” Merkel said.
Though the department could buy cheaper radios to keep using on the old system, it doesn’t make sense to invest money to stay on a failing system, Merkel said.
“It isn’t an option,” Merkel said. “The number one priority is public safety. We need to be able to hear each other over the radios, we need communication between police, fire and EMS. Right now, we are broadcasting on an island. We need to be able to communicate across the board in a crisis.”
User fees for the department would cost about $12,000 a year, Merkel said.
“But, we’d be out of the radio business, they take care of it all. After the initial costs, it will be cheaper to maintain,” Merkel said.
A donation of 300 MARCS compatible radios to the county from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has already made it into the hands of some county first responders.
Many fire departments are using the radios, specifically fire departments in the northwest part of the county, Bland said. The departments are utilizing them as a secondary source of communication, and departments in Farmington and Mesopotamia use the radios frequently when responding to requests for aid in Geauga County, said Farmington fire Chief Jonathan Bland.
A test of MARCS equipment in the county in 2016 found coverage was consistent throughout the county, even in large commercial buildings, school buildings and other areas known to have poor radio coverage with the existing radio system, Bland said.
“The current system in place poses significant safety issues,” Bland said. “Fire and police agencies consistently experience radio communication failure even when both radios are in close proximity, or line of sight of each other. For example, an ambulance and a rescue/engine responding to a vehicle crash can’t communicate to each other, even though there only 30 to 40 feet away from each other traveling down the road together. The same scenario exists for law enforcement agencies who may be involved in a vehicle pursuit. At father distances apart, the same scenario still arises very commonly,” Bland said.
Once a digital system is in place, transmissions can be encrypted, which means the majority of police scanners, which can be used to listen to emergency transmissions, won’t be able to “hear” the radio traffic anymore.
Merkel said he wants to encrypt the radio traffic.
“This is about officer safety. The information heard over the scanner could be used to plan an ambush. And, a lot of personal information is shared between officers and dispatchers,” Merkel said.