Law enforcement agencies across the metropolitan area have scrambled to meet a 2013 federal mandate to upgrade their public safety radio systems.
Those agencies were required to convert their emergency radio systems to a narrower bandwidth, which allows more channels to operate in the same amount of radio spectrum, by January 2013.
The process often is referred to as “narrowbanding” in the public safety industry.
“Think of it like six seats across an airplane,” said Steve Davidson of the Johnson County Sehriff’s Office. If each individual seat is made just a little more narrow, Davidson said, a seventh seat could be squeezed in.
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Since then, many have applauded improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. But some agencies have not realized the same success.
In Johnson County, meeting the federal mandates was less than an issue because county government officials, working with the sheriff’s office, was well along in the planning process, Davidson said.
Johnson County and other agencies, including Jackson counties are part of the Metropolitan Area Regional Radio System (MARRS), which is essentially several large sub-systems — Johnson County, Kansas City and Independence and — as of July 1 — Wyandotte County. The MARRS system uses frequencies in the 700 and 800 MHz (megahertz) bands and is coordinated through the Mid America Regional Council.
“We have inter-operability,” said Davidson. “Public safety agencies can communicate across jurisdictional boundaries.”
The ability to communicate more seamlessly grew more important following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said.
Before the current MARRS arrangement, there were eight public safety radio systems operating in Johnson County, said Walter Way, Johnson County emergency management and communications director.
Five were operated by municipal police departments, two were operated by the county, and one was an emergency management VHF system. They operated in a different frequency spectrum and with different proprietary protocols.
It was not efficient, Way said.
“We couldn’t talk to each other directly,” Way said. “Our goal was to bring all those into one inter-operable system, so we could all share in the infrastructure costs.”
In Johnson County, much of the approximately $20 million infrastructure upgrade — switchers, transmitters, towers — was financed with cash reserves and 911 fees for cellular phones, Way said.
“There were no additional tax funds needed,” he said. “Each city and agency that wanted to join the system bought their own radio equipment and used that equipment to access the larger system. This way we could avoid replication of infrastructure costs, share tower sites and do a lot of things collectively.”
Johnson County officials selected Motorola as the system vendor through a competitive bidding process.
As did Independence.
In 2005, the city approved a contract with the company to build its new inter-operable radio system. Much of the funding came from a $5.5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant in 2004, supplemented by a $2.3 million state grant two years later. While the initial federal grant paid for the bulk of the system’s equipment, the state grant helped establish the Independence system as a “master site,” which represented the inter-operable component to link systems together.
Kansas City later decided to establish its own “master site,’ said Independence Police Deputy Chief Gordon Abraham. “We made the decision that it was fiscally sound to join the Kansas City master site.”
Independence, in turn, established its own “prime” site sub system with regional public safety agencies such as the Blue Springs Police and Central Jackson County Fire District. But it maintains access to the Kansas City master site and retains the ability to communicate across jurisdictional lines.
If there is a “regional” event — such as a car chase heading from Independence to Kansas City — there is a specific “pursuit” channel that both the Kansas City and Independence systems can be patched into.
Since Independence established its own prime site, it has made some upgrades with costs met by both the Independence and Blue Springs police departments, said Abraham.
If the systems are complex, the inter-operability component makes it worthwhile, he added.
“What you had before was communication between agencies being done over the telephone, dispatcher to dispatcher, with information then being relayed to officers in the field,” Abraham said.
Jackson County considered several options for upgrading its radio system and determined that the best option was to join the Metropolitan Area Regional Radio System, said Lisa Carter, county spokeswoman.
They too, choose Motorola Solutions, Inc. The components of the new system include two additional tower sites in Lone Jack and Oak Grove, subscriber equipment, radios and accessories, dispatch equipment and system updates, Carter said.
Jackson County provides 911 services to unincorporated Jackson County and contracts to several municipalities. In addition, several Jackson County departments operate radio communication systems, including the county’s parks and recreation department and corrections department.
“We were able to upgrade the safety services utilizing our existing contract with the vendor, resulting in significant savings without a tax increase or debt,” said Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.
The new system is a marked improvement, said Capt. Erik Holland with the Platte County sheriff’s office.
Not so much in eastern parts of Clay County, where outdated dispatch equipment causes coverage dead spots around Excelsior Springs, Kearney and Smithville.
“As far as communication in the county with what we have, it is mediocre at best,” said Lt. Will Akin of the Clay County sheriff’s office. “We have deputies that sometimes cannot communicate with dispatch. We are trying, but the problem is it costs so much money.”