Testing a radio system one garage at a time

Howard rescue workers comb county in search of blind spots, lost signals

May 24, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

For the next few weeks, some Howard County residents may feel as though they've wandered into a cellular telephone commercial -- the one where the guy keeps asking, "Can you hear me now?"

Across the county, public safety officials will be ducking into about 500 garages, convenience stores and other nooks and crannies to test the strength of their soon-to-be-implemented 800-megahertz communications system.

"Mind if I stand in your garage and talk on my radio?" Howard County Fire and Rescue Services Capt. Jeff Loomis asked a woman standing outside her two-story home on Jerry's Drive in Columbia this week.

Like most Howard County residents, the woman did not hesitate to motion Loomis and his Motorola partner, James Perschy, into the garage.

Within the next two minutes, the pair verified that if there ever were an emergency in that neighborhood, fire, police and medical personnel would have no trouble communicating over their radios.

The $26.6 million system uses eight towers and one building around the county and state-of-the-art digital radios to provide significantly improved coverage for police, fire and rescue units that have long been hampered by lost signals and blind spots. Five 350-foot or higher towers were built for the project.

The careful testing is the last big hurdle for the Motorola-designed system before its scheduled launch this fall.

"This is a significant milestone for the project," county public works Director James M. Irvin said at a briefing Monday for the teams of testers. "It may seem mundane, but testing is substantially important."

To ensure the system is working correctly, six teams of three people have been knocking on doors since Monday and will continue to do so until every corner of the county has been tested.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Loomis and his teammates estimated they had been to about 70 locations. No one had refused to let them conduct the test, he said.

On Jerry's Drive, Loomis and Perschy stepped into the open one-car garage and waited until their portable radios stopped buzzing with other teams sending test messages.

At the first pause, Loomis said into his radio: "Team 3 to dispatch."

"Team 3, go ahead," a dispatcher responded seconds later. Without the typical squawking and scratching of portable radios, the dispatcher sounded as if he could have been in that same garage.

"Grid is 40-30, we got the page, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5," Loomis said.

"That is a good test," the dispatcher responded. Loomis repeated the same test after switching his radio from digital to analog and about a minute later, ducked out of the garage.

Team 3 and the five other groups will ride through the county from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday until each grid has been checked for a radio signal. While Team 3 primarily tests homes, other teams have specialized assignments. For example, Team 6 is testing out-of-county locations and Team 5 concentrates on schools. All teams consist of one county police officer, firefighter or sheriff's deputy, one Motorola representative and a driver.

Locations that fail the initial radio test will be marked for retesting, said Michael Ciampaglia, a project manager for Motorola.

The county asked Motorola to design radio communications that can penetrate buildings, unlike the current system, Ciampaglia said.

"This is a completely new game," he said. "The county will notice increased radio coverage both on the streets and inside of buildings."

Motorola guaranteed reliable signals covering at least 95 percent of the county area they agreed to cover, according to county officials.

From Loomis' perspective, the company seems to have met its goal -- as of Wednesday, no test his team had performed failed.

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