Department’s Current Radio Technology has Potentially Dangerous Limitations
Marshfield Police Department is seeking to improve their communication capabilities by investing in new radio technology. Currently, certain areas within the city offer challenges with radio communications, causing potential interference and communication breakdowns during an emergency situation.
A recent situation involved an officer responding to a retail theft at Walmart. Officers were dispatched and when the first officer arrived he confronted the individual, saw he had a gun (which was later determined to be an airsoft gun), and immediately called for backup.
“That whole time, he was calling for backup on his radio and not getting backup. The transmission was not getting out,” said Police Chief Rick Gramza. “The officer handled the call perfectly, but he shouldn’t have had to do it alone. We’ve been lucky that nothing has happened. I don’t want to be dramatic, but I don’t want to hang my hat on luck. We’ve been lucky that no one has been injured or killed because of bad radio communication.”
Similar occurrences have happened during situations such as when an officer has attempted to communicate with ambulances. With the goal of improving safety for both the community and its officers, the department has been investigating options to improve radio communications.
“The current radios we have are seven years-old and weren’t top-end when purchased,” said Gramza. “We did a test communication throughout the city with our existing radios. We attempted using a cross band repeater and experimenting with UHF versus VHF frequency.”
(UHF radios work well over shorter distances and are more flexible in how they can communicate. For example, UHF radios are currently used within the school district. VHF, which is what the department currently uses, works better over further distances, but is limited in its adaptability. VHF cannot travel through buildings and only works well if it can reach an antenna. The department has also experimented with using a cross band repeater. Cross band repeaters change a frequency from UHF to VHF within the officer’s vehicle but necessitate the officer carry two radios on their person.)
“In those situations that where we know we have a trouble area, officers could grab a UHF radio (from in the squad) and re-transmit,” said Gramza. “But it’s a bandaid on a broken arm. It’s a temporary fix. It’s not fixing the problem, it’s circumventing the problem.”
Additionally, using a repeater can be compromising because if more than one officer on a scene is utilizing one, they cancel each other out.
The department identified two potential solutions to the communication issues: invest in radios with improved signal strength, or invest in utilizing more radio towers already in the area. With the latter being significantly more expensive and with the advancement of radio technology in the last decade, the department began researching new radios.
Radios were evaluated on their quality, as well as by their ability to work well with the topography of the city, its buildings, and the position they would need to be worn on an officer’s body.
At a cost of $180,000, the 45 new radios the department is hoping to invest in are 6 watt, higher-quality radios.
“We’re looking at radios that have a stronger transmission and that have better battery life,” said Gramza, explaining that with the current radios, as the battery depletes so does the signal being transmitted.
“This is causing us to not be able to communicate consistently. Officers should not have to resort to cell phones – which only communicate to one person at a time – or radios in the squad to communicate,” said Gramza. “Another odd occurrence with current portable radios we experience is if dispatch was trying to communicate with us, our current radio will often cancel each other out and the transmission will not be heard on both radios based on proximity to one another.”
“We’re utilizing one antenna in the city and that’s at the PD,” said Gramza. “Officers need to be able to communicate so that not only can they be safe, but citizens can be safe…not lucky.”
(The radios are currently budgeted for and approved by the Police & Fire Commission, but with the necessary cuts needed to balance the City budget – $1.4 million, it is one item being considered for removal.)