Police radios fail when, where they're most needed

Most modern equipment stymied by city buildings

November 09, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

The police radio used to be the ultimate piece of squad-car technology, as dependable to a cop in a jam as the trusty black-and-white cruiser itself.

But that was before office towers and parking structures started blocking radio waves. And before wireless phones with crystal clear reception increased expectations for two-way communication, while at the same time stealing frequencies from radio users.

In this era of technological innovation, the crackling police radio is starting to show its age.

Police and fire agencies across the country are using antiquated equipment developed in the 1950s and 1960s that has failed in major emergencies.

That problem is prompting departments to spend hundreds of millions on cutting-edge radio networks, only to encounter many new - and sometimes dangerous - breakdowns.

In one extreme case in Atlanta, a new police radio network failed to pick up an officer's call for help moments before a rifle-wielding suspect wounded her and killed her partner. In Delaware, firefighters resorted to shouting out of windows because their $50 million communications system didn't work inside high-rise buildings.

In Los Angeles, police use a 21-year-old network so out of date that manufacturers have stopped making parts for it. For years, cash-strapped technicians had to cannibalize parts from some hand-held radios to fix others. During the 1992 riots, officers in the field faced a critical shortage of portable radios. The city is installing a new system.

Orange County, Calif., began rolling out an $80 million network this year and took its own static - including several incidents that police insist put their safety at risk. This summer, officers complained that new radios failed to pick up critical information from dispatchers during an office building search for a murder suspect.

"I think we've gone backward instead of forward," said Irvine Police Officer Jeff van der Sluys Veer. Some of his colleagues rely on their own cellular phones and pagers, he said, "anything they can to maintain communications."

The problem is part physics and part finances.

The design of police radio systems makes it difficult for signals to penetrate the heavy steel and concrete of office buildings, parking garages, shopping malls and even hospitals. As these structures sprout, they present major obstacles for officers trying to keep in touch with each other.

Wireless phones also operate with radio waves, but engineering experts say they often provide far better service than police radios because the telephone companies place more radio towers in highly developed areas. Local governments don't have the money to match that kind of coverage - even with state-of-the-art systems.

The quality of radio service varies greatly - even among agencies purchasing the same type of advanced systems. San Diego's new network is similar to Orange County's, but officials there said they've experienced few problems and are generally happy with it.

In dozens of other cities, however, police and fire officials have faced signal failures in patrol areas and inside malls, hospitals and even their own headquarters. In many cases, the breakdowns have fueled cost overruns and triggered complaints that new radios are putting lives at risk.

Until the early 1990s, most police radios operated at frequencies that were 400 megahertz or less - the same frequencies used by the burgeoning wireless communications industry. The explosion of cell phones and other technology sparked a modern-day "land rush" for radio frequencies.

Police and fire departments found themselves without space to add radio channels even though their populations - and emergency call volumes - were rising. As calls flooded dispatch centers, officers had to wait in line to make a call - often delaying response times by crucial minutes.

The answer was for police to switch to higher, less crowded frequencies. But as a growing number of agencies made the conversion over the past few years, the limitations with these frequencies have become apparent.

The biggest complaint is that the radios don't always work in many big structures and throughout entire patrol districts. Experts point out that radio waves on higher frequencies cannot travel as far as those on the low frequencies previously used. To compensate, public safety agencies must add costly radio towers.

Additionally, the technology is vulnerable to interference from wireless phones. Technicians have discovered that some cellular phone sites reduce nearby police radios to little more than static.

"Dead spots" are reported elsewhere, including Portland, Ore., where a new 800-megahertz radio network was touted as state-of-the-art technology when it was installed in 1994.

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