The Scottsdale Police Department, long plagued by radio “dead zones,” is getting a model on how to build a better communications system from its new sibling, the city fire department.
After spending $1.4 million just two years ago to improve its system and seeing limited results, the police department now must decide if it will follow the model.
The City Council agreed Tuesday to spend $1.2 million to build a radio system for its newly established fire department during fiscal year 2004-05.
The Scottsdale system will be an expansion of one established by Phoenix and other Valley cities. That system has become a “de facto standard for public safety radio networks,” said Mark Schroeder, a radio communications engineer for Scottsdale.
In 2001, Scottsdale police contracted with Maricopa County to join its Smartzone radio system. While the county’s system provided additional transistors and frequencies for the department’s radios, problems persisted. Officers found their hand-held radios, and even their laptop computers, would sometimes lose contact in some parts of town.
The radio system operated by Rural/Metro Corp., the city’s fire service, has also been deemed deficient, Fire Chief William McDonald said. That system only meets national standards for reliability in 20 percent of the city. When Rural/Metro announced in November it was pulling out of Scottsdale on June 30, 2005, the city was charged with creating a new communications system in addition to a fire department.
Police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers are using less powerful hand-held radios more often, said Joe Hindman, technology director for Scottsdale police. The county’s system was designed to cover thousands of miles and works best with high-power radios found in police cars and fire engines.
“Today, a majority of radios are portable, and because their antennas are smaller, if you’re going to build a system for portable radios, that’s going to cost more money,” Hindman said.
The hand-held radios require transmitters to be stationed closer together.
The fire department has already had the engineering done to plot where transmitters and receivers will be placed so that all radios can be relied on at least 95 percent of the time. The police department could link into the fire department’s system with the purchase of additional equipment, Schroeder said.
But it first must end its relationship with the county and give up on its previous investment.
“We’re excited about what is happening with the fire department. They can assist us with some difficult areas in our reception,” Police Chief Alan Rodbell said.
The police department might follow the fire department’s lead and link with Phoenix, Rodbell said. But, he said it also might opt to join systems with another neighboring city or stay with the county if it upgrades its radio network.
Eventually, all public safety departments are moving to perfect their communications systems to use hand-held radios, Schroeder said.
“We want to be able to provide that officer at the front door and the back door communications between themselves,” Schroeder said. Maricopa County does not intend to redesign its system to comply with the needs of smaller radios, said Chuck Brotherton, the county’s wireless system manager.
“We cover 9,200 square miles and it does a pretty good job,” Brotherton said.
The discussion over whether the police department will shift over its radio system will likely pivot on what most government decisions do.
“It’s really gonna come down to, I think, cost,” Hindman said.