Improved 911 system on its way

Ernie Cook, director of the Trumbull County 911 Center, said the state is prepared to invest about $500,000 in this radio tower for the transition to the digital system. The tower has been inoperable for about two years, impacting analog radio systems in the area.

WARREN — The ability of safety forces in the county to communicate with members of their own agencies, outside agencies, over distances and in inclement weather should be improved before the end of the year.

Trumbull County commissioners today are expected to approve $1.4 million in spending on a digital 911 system. Ten Motorola dispatch consoles will cost the county approximately $783,000, and new radios for the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office will cost approximately $687,000. Notes and bonds will pay for the equipment.

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, said Ernie Cook, director of the Trumbull County 911 Center.

“This will mean a more robust emergency communication system,” Cook said.

And because the system is dual band — meaning it can accept communications from digital radios, like the sheriff’s office will soon have, and analog radios, like the majority of the other police and fire departments in the county use — no other community has to transition to the digital system in order to communicate with 911, Cook said.

However, not making the switch means those departments still using the narrow-bandwidth analog systems will still have to contend with radio “dead zones” and static that comes in damp weather, Cook said.

“Every agency has dead spots,” Cook said.

Switching to digital also allows departments to encrypt their communications so the public will no longer be able to listen in on a typical police scanner, which is something desired for officer safety, Cook said.

Cook has been leading a four-year 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 Services and is the state’s response to holes in public safety communication revealed during large-scale crisis incidents. Analog systems severely limit communication among agencies.

“What makes this a big deal is the ability of the departments to communicate between one another. The interoperability, it is important. They didn’t have it in Parkland, they were using hand gestures to communicate with each other,” said Cook, referring to the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The new radios have the ability to hold 1,000 frequencies so the participating agencies can create certain groups, communicate across the state or among states in emergencies of varying scale, Cook said.

The state’s digital communication network 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.

The state is investing nearly $500,000 in a Warren-owned radio tower just off East Market Street near the Old Avalon Golf Course, just west of the state Route 11 / state Route 82 interchange.

The tower has been inoperable for about two years, further decreasing the clarity of analog radio systems, Cook said.

Warren City Council today is expected to consider legislation to purchase the radios it will need to get on the digital system. They are expected to pay approximately $386,000 for 170 radios.

After the transition, the county will save $150,000 a year on maintenance of the current towers because the state will take care of it themselves and the only recurring charge will be about $10 for each radio on the system, paid for by the agency, Cook said.

The county has been able to plan the transition in a less expensive way than other counties, Cook said. One county in the area paid about $15 million, he said.