Failure to communicate
Sunday, January 28, 2007
By DAN RING
About 230 state police officers in Western Massachusetts are plagued by
portable radios that don't work in many rural areas, leaving a
gaping hole in their communication system and threatening the safety
of both troopers and the public.
Each trooper and sergeant in the six barracks of Troop B is
equipped with a top-of-the-line portable radio, estimated to cost
$1,500, but the radios are almost always dead in certain areas west
of Interstate 91, particularly amid the hills and mountains in small
That means troopers frequently can't communicate with their
barracks or colleagues during emergencies or other critical times,
The radios operate on the state police 800 megahertz band, which
isn't backed by enough towers and other infrastructure in rural
"The portable radios are fairly useless," said Trooper Jeffrey S.
Gordon, the Troop B representative for the State Police Association
of Massachusetts and a veteran of seven years in the Russell
barracks and 10 years on the force.
"They are almost like a uniform part. In some areas, the radio
has no function. There's no coverage. You can't call for assistance.
What good is it?"
The six barracks of Troop B include Russell, Cheshire, Shelburne,
Lee, Northampton and Springfield. There are about 20 sergeants and
212 troopers in the six barracks. The portable radios generally work
if troopers are in cities such as Northampton or Springfield.
It's the troopers in Cheshire, Lee, Russell and Shelburne who are
most frequently hindered by the often-useless radios, Gordon said.
Troopers in those barracks serve as primary law enforcers in
communities with only police chiefs or small, often part-time
A member of the State Police Safety Committee, Gordon said the
situation is intolerable. There have been no improvements in the
radio system west of Interstate 91 despite years of criticism by
They decided to speak out when Trooper Daniel R. Gale, of the
Russell barracks, was hit by a southbound dump truck on Nov. 29
while working a traffic detail on a sharp corner along Route 116 in
The impact knocked Gale over a guardrail and about 30 feet down
an embankment. He dislocated his left shoulder and damaged his left
knee and right wrist. Gale said he attempted to use his portable
radio to call for help, but there was no reception.
"It was very frustrating," Gale said.
Troopers need to be prepared for the unexpected, but Gale was let
down by a failed radio system when he needed medical help.
"Something should be done," Gale said. "The system is horrible."
In a lot of pain, he screamed, Gale said, but no one heard him
because a wood chipper was operating as part of the detail. Finally,
workers for the tree company noticed that he was missing and turned
off the chipper, allowing them to hear his screams, Gale said. A
worker scrambled down the embankment and helped him to safety.
Gale said it took about 10 minutes for anyone to realize he was
no longer at his post on Route 116. He reached his cruiser and used
a secondary, lower-band radio inside the cruiser to call for an
Gale, who remains out on medical leave, said he's lucky the car
radio worked because even those are beset by dead spots in certain
Trooper David P. Cortese, secretary of the State Police
Association of Massachusetts, who is assigned to the Holden
barracks, said the inability to use portable radios in certain parts
of Western Massachusetts is "the biggest safety problem we have now
in the state police."
Cortese said what happened to Gale was intolerable.
"In this day and age, when a trooper can't call for help - that
needs to be fixed right away," he said.
According to Gordon, the problem with the radio system isn't the
fault of Col. Mark F. Delaney, superintendent of the state police,
or other managers. It's not an issue that involves the union
squaring off against management, either.
What it comes down to, Gordon said, is that the state so far has
failed to release enough money for needed towers and repeaters,
which are devices that improve radio signals.
Gordon said the problem is apparently an extremely low priority
on Beacon Hill.
"We're out in Western Massachusetts," Gordon said. "It's kind of
out of sight, out of mind."
If the portable radios for troopers at the Framingham
headquarters didn't work, they would be fixed instantly, Gordon
The 800-megahertz radio band is supported by enough
infrastructure that the portable radios work well for state police
in central and eastern Massachusetts and in cities such as Holyoke,
Northampton, Springfield and Westfield.
The portable radios, worn on a belt with a shoulder microphone,
operate off an 800-megahertz band set aside for state police.
The radios inside cruisers use the 800-megahertz band. Cruisers
also have radios that operate on a lower band.
Gordon and other troopers said the cruiser radios on the 800
megahertz band often don't function west of Interstate 91. Troopers
use the cruiser's lower band, but they need to be inside the car, he
That means troopers are often left with no ability to communicate
if they chase a suspect, for example, investigate a motor vehicle
accident or respond to a domestic complaint in a small town.
"They are dead in the water out here," unless troopers use the
radios in their cruisers, said Huntington Police Chief Robert F.
Garriepy. "I'm worried about the safety of state police officers."
The state police handle the bulk of police calls in small towns
such as Blandford, Chester, Chesterfield, Goshen, Granville,
Huntington, Plainfield, Tolland and Worthington, according to
Sometimes, if a trooper is with a local officer on an
investigation, the trooper will depend on the local officer's
portable radio, Gordon said.
"The portables used by local officers seem to work wherever they
go," Gordon said.
The state does not issue cell phones to troopers who use marked
cruisers, Gordon said. Many troopers carry a personal cell phone,
but those also can be unreliable in rural areas.
Troopers are leery of publicizing their communication
difficulties because it exposes a serious flaw that could be
exploited by criminals.
Kelly A. Nantel, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of
Public Safety, said constructing the 800-megahertz radio system for
the state police in Western Massachusetts has been very slow for a
variety of reasons.
"Certainly, the frustration is understandable," Nantel said.
"It's shared. But there is a tremendous amount of work being done."
Maj. Michael J. Saltzman, a deputy commander at the Framingham
headquarters, said officials and a consultant have identified about
32 sites west of Interstate 91 for placing equipment on towers,
including existing private and government sites.
Saltzman said about $22 million has been approved to complete the
network in Western Massachusetts. About $7 million has already been
spent, allowing the state to develop agreements with owners of
existing towers and complete other preparatory work.
Saltzman said the most difficult part of the process is finding
tower sites that can be effective in the valleys, hills and
mountains of Western Massachusetts.
He couldn't say when the system will be finished in Western
Massachusetts, but he said state police are working aggressively on
"This is a priority for Col. Delaney," Saltzman said. "This is a
huge project. It's moving forward."
Saltzman said progress was delayed when police decided about 1½
years ago to install more advanced digital technology for Troop B.
The system in Western Massachusetts will also be analog, the same
technology used in the rest of the 800-megahertz system for the
state police, he said.
State Rep. Cheryl A. Coakley-Rivera, D-Springfield, co-chairman
of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the
radio system in Western Massachusetts is clearly a serious hazard
for police and residents.
In order to complete the system, Coakley-Rivera said, more money
will need to be approved in a new bill to authorize borrowing money.
Municipal police departments generally operate on lower bands than
the state police system.
Shelburne Fire Chief Angus T. Dun III said Franklin County
police, fire and emergency medical technicians chose the
450-megahertz band for a new system partly because they knew there
were big problems with the 800-megahertz band used by state police.
The 450 band and accompanying radios were also more economical, he
Dun, chairman of the communications committee of Tri-State Fire
Mutual Aid, said 26 communities in Franklin County joined together
to build an 11-tower regional system, which began operating last
The system was financed by grants from the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security and uses frequencies that are shared with the
Western Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council.
"Portable coverage is very, very good," Dun said. Higher
frequencies, such as the 800 megahertz system, he noted, are more
susceptible to being blocked by mountains and trees.
Southampton Police Chief David G. Silvernail said the department
uses its own lower-band radio frequency.
The town's seven full-time and 10 part-time officers experience
some areas of poor reception with portable radios, but nothing near
the wide blackouts that hamper state police in some communities,
according to Silvernail.
Trooper Gordon began work in the Springfield barracks last week
after a long tour in Russell. Gordon will finally have a portable
radio that works most of the time, but he's worried that his
colleagues in Russell will be unable to use theirs any time soon.
"It's a tunnel with no light at the end of it," he said. "I don't
see any progress being made."