Law enforcement agencies across the metropolitan area scrambled to meet a 2013 federal mandate to upgrade their public safety radio systems, but not all agencies are happy with the results.
And some governments have struggled to pay for the new systems.
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.
This 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 Sheriff’s Office. If each individual seat is made just a little more narrow, Davidson said, a seventh seat could be squeezed in.
Since then, many have applauded improvements in efficiency and effectiveness.
“This system is a marked improvement,” said Capt. Erik Holland with the Platte County sheriff’s office. “... There is better quality in the transmission so it is easier to understand.”
Not so much in eastern parts of Clay County, where outdated dispatch equipment causes coverage dead spots around Excelsior Springs, Kearney and Smithville.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.”
Clay County said it needs to spend just over $600,000 for upgraded consoles, work stations and other electronic improvements. Sheriff Paul Vescovo said those expenditures are on the top of the budget he will soon submit to the County Commission.
“We have got to go on the Internet to get parts to make repairs,” Vescovo said. “The system has gotten to the point where now we are very afraid that the system could crash and that would be it.”
Reflected in tax bills going out this month, the Platte County Commission raised the property tax levy from 1 cent to 6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The additional money was needed to pay for the equipment it leases to operate the radio system.
“We didn’t have any other options,” said Platte County Commissioner Beverlee Roper. “We have absolutely no money to pay for it.”
Cass County took a different approach. In 2012, voters approved a half-cent sales tax for the radio service and its 911 system.
In Johnson County, meeting the federal mandates was less of an issue because county government officials, working with the sheriff’s office, were well along in the planning process, said Davidson.
Jackson County and other agencies 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 terrorist attacks, he said.
Johnson County officials selected Motorola as the system vendor through a competitive bidding process.
As did Independence.
In 2005, Independence 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 grant in 2004, supplemented by a $2.3 million state grant two years later.
While the initial federal grant paid for most of the 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 Department and the Central Jackson County Fire Protection 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, Abraham said.
If the systems are complex, he added, the inter-operability component makes it worthwhile.
“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 and determined it was best to join the Metropolitan Area Regional Radio System, said Lisa Carter, county spokeswoman.
It, too, chose 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.