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Officials: County’s radio system unsafe, past due for fix

By Stephanie Casanova

On the afternoon of Dec. 27, Riley County Police Department officer Jayson Hubbard keyed up the radio on his shoulder to tell dispatch he was checking on a person with a warrant and asking dispatch to confirm the warrant.

Background noise overpowered Hubbard’s message, so the dispatcher, Josh Schwanke, asked Hubbard to repeat himself.

Another officer who wasn’t with Hubbard used his car radio to relay Hubbard’s message to dispatch. Hubbard was at Brookfield Residences, an apartment complex off of Tuttle Creek Boulevard on the northeast side of Manhattan.

“He’s in the city limits of Manhattan,”said Tyler Siefkes, a dispatch shift supervisor. “We should be able to hear an officer on foot. He wasn’t in the apartment. He was outside.”

Every day Riley County’s emergency responders are having trouble reaching central dispatch, requesting help from other departments or agencies, and asking for backup because calls through the radio system in Riley County are dropped or there is too much static to communicate properly.

The county is now looking to replace emergency management services’ radio system, a project that is expected to cost about $10 million.

Officials say the radio infrastructure, computer software, some radios and other equipment are outdated, and some of it is obsolete.

County commissioners about a year ago told Pat Collins, Riley County Emergency Management director, to put out bids for a radio system. He got two bidders for a new 800 megahertz radio system, one at $6-7 million and another at $10-12 million. Collins is expected to present the bids to commissioners this month.

Collins said he, along with the police department director and city and rural fire department chiefs, approached county commissioners in 2005 telling them the radio system needed to be updated. Riley County emergency responders have been communicating through a VHF system since the mid-1990s.

The Federal Communications Commission warned local governments in 2002 that they would be “narrowbanding” in 2012 because of congestion from more people using radio waves. Narrowbanding means the range a radio signal will travel gets cut in half, allowing more people to use radio waves without interfering with one another.

The FCC mandate affected systems that used channels between 150 and 174 megahertz and between 421 and 512 megahertz. Narrowbanding does not affect an 800 megahertz system. Currently, radio signals within city limits are at 60 to 70 percent coverage and are worse outside of city limits in the rest of the county.

Replacing the system in 2005 would have cost the county $2 million. Collins said at least one of the commissioners at the time said they didn’t think the federal government would actually force them to narrowband. They told Collins to see what he could do to fix the problem at a lower cost. Collins said the county has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” over the years to put “Band-Aids” on the system.

“I don’t know even if we would’ve had a consultant back then who said, ‘You gotta get away from VHF,’ if we would have,” Collins said. “It changes, you know. You’ve gotta grow up with the system. There were lots of alternatives, but every one of them cost money.” Emergency management had been adding cross-band repeaters to its system before 2005 in order to communicate with other counties and with K-State, which all used different systems. A repeater is a radio on a tower that takes in a message from a handheld radio and kicks it out at a higher wattage so more people can receive it. Between 2005 and 2012, the departments narrow banded their radios to comply with the FCC mandate, cutting their coverage by 30 to 50 percent. The signal is also affected by buildings or hills that get in the way of towers.

While some pieces of equipment and certain radios have been upgraded, the basic radio infrastructure hasn’t changed for more than 30 years, said Tim Hegarty, support division commander for RCPD. “The Band-Aid fix is all well and good until somebody is in real trouble, and then it’s not and we just don’t want that day to come,” Hegarty said.

In 2014, the county commission told Collins to hire a consultant to evaluate the radio system and find out if they could put more Band-Aids on the system to make it work countywide or to give the county other alternatives.

The consultant, from Tusa Consulting Services, based in Tallahassee, Florida, told Collins that the VHF system was never made to be used with repeaters and suggested that the county go to an 800 megahertz system.

Karen McCulloh, currently a city commissioner and former county commissioner from 2009 to 2012, said the commission at the time did not want to rush into spending money on a new system without being sure what their best option was. The board also hesitated because they were waiting to see whether the state would provide a program that every county could adopt so they could communicate from county to county.

“At least when I was county commissioner we looked to the state for guidance and we didn’t get any,” McCulloh said.

She said Collins went to county and city/county meetings several times to discuss the problems. Bob Boyd, county commissioner from 2013 through 2016, said the commission was waiting for the FCC and technology to be up to date and was learning from problems other counties had as they switched over to an 800 megahertz system. The county was also hoping there would be state or federal funds local governments could use to update their systems, McCulloh said, adding that the narrow banding is an example of federal mandates that don’t take into consideration the price tag at the local level. “I do think it would’ve been smart to try to bite off a little bit at a time,” McCulloh said. “This is something that has been out there on the horizon that probably should’ve been discussed more frequently.”

The county has put together a study group that will look into the county’s options for fixing the system and what it will cost to do so this year. Marvin Rodriguez, who will replace Boyd as county commissioner this week and head the study group, said he needs to review all the information available and be brought up to date on all the options for fixing the system.

“The big item is money,” he said. “We don’t have funds allocated as of yet. So we have to see what kind of options we have to look at or decide on.”

Boyd said the commission has known about the problem for a while and needs to take care of it. So far, they’ve been able to fix the problem with repeaters and by using cell phones. Dispatchers sometimes have to call emergency responders on their cell phone to properly communicate.

“This is not a new problem,” Boyd said. “We’ve known that we’ve had small pockets of isolation where radios wouldn’t reach. Those small, small pockets in the last four years are starting to increase and they’re now getting to be significant with the narrow banding.”

Diane Doehling, communications center manager, said there was recently an injury accident in northern Riley County. The North County first responders, the ambulance that was responding, and RCPD officers who were all in that area were unable to communicate with dispatch. The dispatchers had to call one of the officers on his cell phone, Doehling said. If an emergency responder is busy they won’t be able to pick up their cellphone, she said. There are also areas in the county where cellphones don’t have signal.

Doehling has been saving emails from dispatchers of reports where calls don’t come in clearly or cut off. The reports come in on a daily basis from each department, she said. Doehling said if the system isn’t replaced soon there’s a possibility that something bad can happen when they’re not able to communicate. “We’ve been very fortunate the public doesn’t know that this stuff is happening because we’re pretty good at improvising,” Doehling said. “We’re problem solvers and so we find a way to resolve the issue and we can’t always do that.” The 800 megahertz system being proposed would provide 95 percent in-building coverage, said Scott French, chief of the Manhattan Fire Department.

When the fire department responds to an emergency, it communicates with an instant commander outside the building. Those communications are sometimes garbled. French said the county’s system has been a good system for the last 20 years but it needs the upgrade. “Unfortunately the price tag is high,” French said. “But I think the cost could be even higher if we don’t do this and somebody is seriously injured.”

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