Arundel police try to end `dead zones'

Radio interference considered threat to officers on patrol

`So far, we've been lucky'

Cellular phone towers blamed for problems with communications

March 19, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Cruising a back road on the midnight shift, Officer Patrick A. Fisher is complaining about the potentially dangerous "dead zones" on Anne Arundel County's police radio system when a car flies by on Belle Grove Road.

As if on cue, the radio in his unmarked car chokes and crackles as Fisher swings his car around, turning on his lights and siren to pull over the driver.

Because his police radio is suddenly useless, Fisher picks up his cell phone to call in the tag number. He stops the driver and begins writing him a speeding ticket. Before he's done, another officer stops to warn Fisher that the driver might be the same man who months ago lunged over the hood of his car and fired several rounds from a .22-caliber handgun at a couple stopped at a Glen Burnie traffic light.

It's a clear example of why the department is concerned about its radio system. If there's trouble, the one piece of equipment that could summon immediate help won't work because it's now in one of the county's eight dead zones.

Not only is the man Fisher stopped the suspect in the shooting, out on bail, but the two officers realize he's driving the same car when they see a bullet hole in the roof of the Plymouth Neon.

The officers know there's a significant possibility this traffic stop could sour. Fortunately, in this case, the exchange of paperwork and excuses is uneventful. The driver lets Fisher and Officer Lance Anderson search the car. No weapons are found. He is given his ticket and allowed to leave.

"So far, we've been lucky," said police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan. "It's a safety issue -- both public safety and officers' safety."

Finding a cause

After a more than yearlong study of the problem, engineers and officials have concluded it is no coincidence that each of the problem spots contains a telecommunications tower, the chief said.

Department officials have identified the dead spots as a milelong stretch of Belle Grove Road in Brooklyn Park; an industrial complex north of Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Linthicum; an area near Route 2 and Mountain Road in Harundale; an area near Mountain Road and Edwin Raynor Boulevard in Pasadena; a stretch of Route 175 in Fort Meade-Jessup; a stretch of Interstate 97 near the police and fire headquarters in Millersville; a small area near Cape St. Claire; and a section along Route 4 in Waysons Corner.

At best, the transmissions are barely audible in those areas, officers say. At worst, the radios don't function at all.

"I've made everyone who will listen aware of the difficulties the officers are facing," Shanahan said, including the county officials who have the final say on purchasing a new radio system, which would cost about $22 million over the next three years.

Although the cellular companies and the police are assigned different frequencies, they are extremely close together, police Capt. Gordon Deans explained. The cellular signals are also stronger -- essentially overpowering police transmissions, he said.

Crowded airwaves

Several solutions are available, according to Federal Communications Commission engineers. In some cases, frequency coordinates can be adjusted slightly. But with the tremendous growth of the telecommunications industry, the bands are usually crowded, an FCC official said.

Ideally, the transmissions don't overlap. But, the official explained, "Not all radio systems have the same ability to reject signals. Some have better filtering systems than others."

A new radio system being tested in Anne Arundel County features much better filters, Deans said. The filters appear to eliminate the interference.

Shanahan said that even without the interference, the county needs to replace the radio system, because it's 12 years old and replacement parts are increasingly hard to find. "It's getting antiquated," Shanahan said.

The county fire department, which broadcasts over the same radio system, also experiences problems, said Fire Battalion Chief John M. Scholz.

Because the firefighters' radios are slightly different than those used by police, they can be used to speak with other firefighters on a scene, Scholz said. As a result, the interference problem is not as great for them as it is for the police.

But, he Scholz said, "It does create a great deal of confusion."

Shanahan has vowed to solve the problem with the dead spots. "It just can't go another 30 days," he said. "The public can be harmed. Officers can be harmed."

Initially, the chief said he was going to spend about $23,000 on cellular phones for officers patrolling the dead zones. But the department will probably buy about 20 of the new radios instead, because they work in the dead zones, Shanahan said.

Similar to the "yank and go" models being used, the portable radios charge inside the console radios in police cars. The new models are slightly smaller -- about the size of a cordless phone -- and slightly heavier than those in use.

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