Police turned off by radio network Too many bugs in new system, Livingston
County officers complain
By KARESSA E. WEIR NEWS STAFF REPORTER
note: Ann Arbor News Story sent to me by Peter Szerlag.
Officer Craig Stokes entered a quaint white church in downtown Pinckney to investigate a smoke alarm. When he found an exit sign had short-circuited, he reached for the state-of-the-art portable radio on his belt to call for a fire truck. It didn't work. Stokes wasn't surprised. "I never know if it is going to work until I try it," Stokes said. "In this case, I tried for a minute, minute and a half, before giving up and calling 911 on a telephone to get a fire truck. It's very frustrating." Such stories are common across Livingston County as officers find their link to the rest of the world to be tenuous at best, despite a radio system touted as the best available. Meanwhile, neighboring Washtenaw County - operating with a supposedly less-advanced system - has no complaints. For three years, Livingston has struggled to fix its problem. This week, officials are pinning their hopes on a new radio tower set to begin operations in October. But even that isn't expected to end all the difficulties. In 1997, Livingston County became the first local law enforcement community to adopt the new Michigan State Public Safety Communications System, an 800 megahertz digital radio system touted by the Michigan State Police as the best in the land. The new system was suppose to allow all police, fire and emergency medical service workers to communicate with each other and with other agencies. Livingston County became the first non-state agency to join the system. Washtenaw County declined to join, instead installing its own 800 megahertz system. But Washtenaw's system is analog, while the statewide system is digital. "We just went on line with the new system a year ago and it's been working well for us. I think we will be with this for a long time," said Dave Halteman, assistant director of Washtenaw County's emergency planning committee. He did not rule out adopting the statewide system in the far future, but is glad the county opted out until all the bugs are worked out. Those bugs have been around since the system was installed. The minutes from a 1997 meeting of the 800 megahertz users committee show complaints of equipment not working, officers unable to contact each other, and transmissions being garbled or cut off. Last year, the Livingston County Board of Commissioners outlined the problems in a letter to Gov. John Engler, stating that "the actual performance of the 800 MHz system has not delivered upon the promise ... The system remains so unreliable that many of the city and township police departments have been forced to resort to cellular telephones for communications. While the in-car radios, which are the focus of the system, do not operate consistently, the portable radios are all but worthless." The county contracted with an independent assessor, New Signals Engineering, to evaluate the problem. The company found the system "under-designed" with a no-access tone --75 percent of the time. The worst-served areas are Pinckney and Hamburg, the report stated. -- The portable radios don't work inside buildings and sometimes fail even under trees, Stokes said. Two radios, held four feet apart inside a downtown Pinckney business on one recent day, failed to communicate either with each other or the county's dispatch center in Howell. Officers conducting traffic stops find they must realign their cars in order to run a check on a license plate. That means backing up, reparking, or angling toward traffic until a signal is found. And on the scene, officers must strike a pose called a "statue of liberty," holding the radio high in the air and hoping to receive a signal that will let them call for an ambulance, fire truck or back-up. "If I am assisting with a medical problem, I can't take the time to mess with the radio. Which am I supposed to do, stop the bleeding or call for help? The answer is, I need to do both, but I can't with these radios," Stokes said. Officers in Pinckney and Hamburg have taken to carrying cellular telephones to back up the radios. State police troopers have had better success with the 800 mHz system, but say it could always use improvements. "We are trying to get it to work perfectly. Is it perfect? No," said Lt. Dennis MacDonnell with the Brighton post. "We have not had the coverage we had hoped for, but personally, I haven't had many problems with it." Troopers from the Ypsilanti post haven't had many problems either - but then again, they are working off two systems, said Sgt. Dan Pizana. "We have one radio in the car which is hooked up to the
(Washtenaw) County system and another which is the 800 mHz statewide system,"
Pizana said. None of Livingston County's fire departments has signed up for the
digital system, waiting instead for the bugs to be ironed out, said county
emergency management director Dick Winsett. "The ability to communicate is the
most important piece of equipment a public safety official has out there,"
Winsett said. County officials believe the problem is caused by the lack of any
radio towers in Livingston County. The current system uses five towers in
surrounding communities to transmit the digital radio signals from all the
police agencies to the central dispatch. The signals must travel an average of
12-15 miles to reach all the townships. Their solution is a $1.3 million tower
recently constructed in the center of the county, on property in Genoa Township.
"We know it won't solve all the problems, but it should enhance the service
considerably," Winsett said. "It is far better for us to continue improving this
system than to set up our own system." The county and vendor Motorola are now
testing the tower, moving through the county with police to find dead spots in
the system. Winsett hopes the tower will be up and running by October. "They are
working in places where they never worked before," consultant John Hargrove told
the Livingston County Board of Commissioners recently. "We are getting close to
what it needs to be for the officers." So far, there are still places where the
portable radios aren't working. But overall the results are "pleasantly
surprising," Hargrove said. Until the system proves reliable, however, officers
will look elsewhere for the security they used to find in their radios. "We just
bought a new set of portable radios which can be hooked up to the old system,"
Hamburg Township Police Chief Robert Krichke said. "It's not ideal, but better
than what we have now. "I only hope that things get better with this new tower.
Personally, I don't think it will be enough." News staff reporter Karessa E.
Weir can be reached at (734) 994-6818.