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Normal switches to old radios after problems


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The Pantagraph/
After extreme problems with the areawide 800-megahertz police dispatch system on Wednesday and Thursday, Normal Police officer Tom Follick used an older 400-MHz-radio as he made a traffic stop on College Avenue on Thursday afternoon. Bloomington, Normal and McLean County police are setting aside their new radio system and switching to older radio technology until the newer system can be fixed.


Pantagraph staff

BLOOMINGTON -- With confidence shattered in the police radio dispatch system, Normal and Bloomington officials have moved to free themselves of the $3 million, 800-megahertz system that periodically fails.

In Normal on Thursday, police commanders issued portable 400-MHz radios that the department had kept in storage since the town switched to a countywide 800-MHz system in the late 1990s.

Not only did the department keep its old radios, but it also kept license to broadcast on a 400-MHz frequency.

In Bloomington, City Manager Tom Hamilton prepared to use emergency spending powers to purchase or lease similar portable radios. He said city police could be using new radios and operating at 400 MHz, on a frequency borrowed from the transit system, by sometime today.

The measures were prompted by a radio outage, followed by poor transmission quality, starting early Thursday.

The latest measures signal that frustration over the dispatch system might be hitting a breaking point.

The countywide dispatch center was using a portable radio to dispatch Normal officers. But Normal Police Chief Walt Clark said Normal was arranging to install permanent 400-MHz consoles at the dispatch center.

"We've had so many incidents," Clark said. "It was time to go to the other system until the 800 system operates to our satisfaction."

Normal Police Officer Michael Dowd, public spokesman on the issue for Normal, Bloomington and McLean County police officers, commended Clark for the decision.

"The system is just not reliable for what public emergency services needs," Dowd said.

Dowd said officers he spoke with were ecstatic at the return to 400-MHz radios.

Squad cars still have 800-MHz mobile units installed, and they will serve as a backup and as a way to hear transmissions to other departments, Clark said.

Hamilton, meanwhile, said he would sign a lease or lease-purchase agreement for perhaps 30 to 40 portable radios.

Except for emergency cases, he cannot spend more than $5,000 without prior city council approval. Police commanders were working out the details late into Thursday afternoon, so the manager still didn't know the cost -- other than it would exceed $5,000 and he would pay now and bring it to the city council later.

He expected Bloomington officers to be using 400-MHz portable radios for several months at a minimum.

Earlier in the month, council members expressed frustration over the radio situation, and they were encouraged when Hamilton informed them that he and Police Chief Roger Aikin had taken action. They were investigating whether to dump the 800-MHz system and revert to a 400-MHz system, with or without Bloomington's Metcom dispatching partners in Normal and McLean County.

Already, Bloomington had switched from one-officer to two-officer patrols to ensure that no officer would be left in danger with no backup and no working radio to summon help.

The blame for periodic radio problems varies, and the cause of problems Thursday is in dispute.

About 4 a.m. Thursday, the system's downtown Bloomington tower was knocked offline, Metcom system administrator Tony Cannon said. Other tower systems were affected, and transmission quality was lowered, because the tower works in concert -- simulcasting -- with other towers, Cannon said.

He said repair personnel told Metcom the problem stemmed from line work by Verizon that Verizon had failed to warn Metcom about.

Verizon spokesman Mike Berry said the company was doing work in Bloomington-Normal early Thursday, but it had nothing to do with Metcom radio problems.

"There should not have been a relationship," Berry said. "We were doing a routine fiber system switch, and if there was a problem with the radio system, the timing would have been coincidental. There shouldn't have been any impact on that system except this momentary blip."

For county police, the situation is disturbing but less urgent because deputies have a second system, operating at 100 MHz, in their cars, Sheriff David Owens said.

He said the county maintains a 100-MHz system as a backup to the 800 system and because it needs to talk to other agencies using 100-MHz systems.

The county has some 100-MHz portable radios. Jail officers and court security deputies use them because they work better inside the Law and Justice Center than 800-MHz portable radios. It can issue 100-MHz portables to patrol deputies, but those radios have a limited range, Owens said.