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from: The Republican

Failure to communicate

 
Sunday, January 28, 2007
By DAN RING
dring@repub.com

 

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 rural towns.

That means troopers frequently can't communicate with their barracks or colleagues during emergencies or other critical times, troopers said.

The radios operate on the state police 800 megahertz band, which isn't backed by enough towers and other infrastructure in rural Western Massachusetts.

"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 departments.

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 troopers.

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 Conway.

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 ambulance.

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 areas.

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 said.

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 said.

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 Gordon.

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 it.

"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 1 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 said.

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 month.

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."


 
2007 The Republican