Balto. Co. updating police, fire network

Work begins on first tower in $57 million shift to digital

April 03, 2009|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,nick.madigan@baltsun.com

The crackling police radio is a well-worn cliche, a sound embedded in the folklore of crime. Cops calling dispatch, sometimes on matters of life and death, have long had to compete with the hissing and sputtering of their two-ways.

In Baltimore County, at least, that scenario will be consigned to history. Law enforcement officials on Thursday broke ground in Woodlawn for a new digital radio transmission tower, part of a $57 million project to replace the county's aging public-safety radio network by late 2011. In all, 10 new digital towers will be built around the county, and eight existing analog towers will be upgraded to the new technology.

Some of the 6,000 two-way radios operated by county police and fire personnel will be enhanced with software that accepts digital transmissions, and the rest will be replaced, Robert R. Stradling, director of the county's Office of Information Technology, said after the groundbreaking ceremony.

For the benefit of undercover police officers, he said, 600 of the new radios will be equipped with encryption devices that will render them inaudible to regular police scanners, which can pick up virtually any analog communication without hindrance.

Speaking with the animation of someone who has just been given a bunch of new high-tech toys, Stradling said the digital radios will also have a program that eliminates or reduces background noise from, say, wind gusts or passing cars, leaving the predominant voices relatively pristine.

"We've also had some issues with transmitting from inside brick or stone buildings," he said. "We won't have that problem any more."

Neither will Baltimore County have trouble communicating with surrounding jurisdictions that use analog systems. "We'll keep our analog up and running so that we can talk to them, until they get their own upgrades," said Stradling, who volunteered that he has been helping Baltimore City officials "come to grips" with the idea of setting up their own digital communications system.

James T. Smith Jr., the Baltimore County executive, said that while a new digital communications network does not qualify as a "sexy" subject - he compared the excitement of the topic to water pumps and sewer lines - it is important for the county's emergency personnel to be able to "communicate seamlessly with their partners in county government and other responding agencies."

Smith said the new network "will help ensure the safety and security of all of our citizens." He said the county had signed an agreement last year with state officials under which some of the towers will be built on state-owned properties, while the state will place some of its transmitters on county towers.

The system, Smith said, will incorporate the Department of Public Works' radio network, enabling those workers to communicate seamlessly with police officers and firefighters.

Richard G. Muth, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the key to mitigating a disaster is "the ability of first responders to have effective communications" and access to shared resources. Under the new system, already used by emergency personnel at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, "fire can talk to police without going through a third party, as was the case in the past."

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