Public safety radio upgrade set to begin

$12.7 million initiative to boost communication for firefighters, police

Dead spots to be eliminated

Cell phone towers pose transmission problems for current system

January 08, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County is embarking on a yearlong project to replace its 15-year-old police and fire communications system, a move that will give emergency workers a more reliable means of staying in contact, officials announced yesterday.

Work begins next week on the 800-megahertz Motorola system, which will cost $12.7 million, county officials said.

"This is something we have wanted and needed for a long time," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police. "It had gotten to the point where our officers were seriously concerned about their own safety."

The current 800-megahertz system's main problem is that dozens of "dead spots" throughout the county -- areas where communication is not possible.

A 1999 study identified eight such zones, all of which contained a telecommunications tower. But as a growing number of powerful cellular telephone towers went up, emergency workers found it harder to hear radio transmissions.

At last count, there were 62 dead spots, county officials said. And although 41 have been at least partially mitigated by restricting the growth of the cell towers, many dead spots remain.

"For a firefighter or a police officer, not having radio communication is like sending soldiers into battle without their weapons," said Keith W. Wright, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters union.

The county distributed 410 new radios last year, cutting down on the interference and dead spots. Still, hundreds of officers, firefighters and support staff were left with old radios, and county and public safety officials said a completely new system is needed to make a noticeable difference.

"The technology 15 years ago met the needs we had then, but it doesn't meet them now," said Cathy Kurnas, communications manager for the Police Department.

This year, the county expects to upgrade infrastructure at four tower sites, triple the system's digital microwave backbone, purchase 16 new radio frequencies, and distribute 1,100 radios and 100 vehicle repeaters that enhance transmissions in buildings. All public safety workers should have new portable radios by April, Kurnas said.

"This is one of the biggest and most important capital projects in our '03 budget," County Executive Janet S. Owens said yesterday. "I am so relieved that we're on our way to providing a better, safer system for police and firefighters."

Throughout Maryland, counties have been updating communications systems and equipment in an effort to both keep up with changing technology and ensure compatibility with the systems of nearby jurisdictions.

Neighboring Howard County is also in the process of switching to an 800-megahertz Motorola communications system. The $26.6 million project included the construction of five towers and is nearing completion after more than two years of work.

Meanwhile, Harford County is midway through a $23 million overhaul to its police and fire communications system.

In addition to better coverage, Anne Arundel's new system will have a greater capacity for interoperability than the current one, said Adrienne Dimopoulos, a spokeswoman for Motorola.

"Since it is compatible with the state's system, all sorts of agencies will be able to jump on in case of an event," she said.

Funding for future Anne Arundel County communications projects, which could cost an additional $16.9 million, has not yet been approved.

"This is one of those quantum leaps forward for the county," Owens said. "We're building a system to last for decades."

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