Columbia County’s sheriff says despite the price tag, a sophisticated new radio system will make his office and others more efficient and responsive for years to come.
Sheriff Clay Whittle said the 800 megahertz phase II trunked radio system from Motorola, which commissioners recently approved at a $7 million price tag, will greatly improve the communications capabilities of the sheriff’s office.
The new system upgrades to digital technology, replacing the antiquated VHF system currently used by deputies and other emergency responders.
“Years ago, the radio spectrum had a wide spread between frequencies,” Whittle explained. “It worked well, because VHF could penetrate long distances. Then, as the radio frequencies became crowded over the years, they had to start narrowing the bandwidth.”
The latest Federal Communications Commission requirements limit the separation between radio channels to 12.5 megahertz. Once, Whittle said, the separation was at least four times that.
Currently, he said, the sheriff’s office has to share a frequency with the Athens-Clark County Police Department.
“It creates bleed-over and interference,” Whittle said. “As they narrowband these radios, it creates more interference and shortens the distance these radios can work.”
Radio coverage in the county currently is limited to about 70 percent, Whittle said. With the new system, that coverage improves to 98 percent.
For car radios, the current system is sufficient because they are powered with more than 40 watts. Portable radios use no more than 5 watts.
“That’s why you’ll sometimes see deputies holding their radios up in the air like the Statue of Liberty holding up the torch,” he said. “They’re trying to get a signal.”
The Motorola system, which is scheduled to go live in October, also allows multiple agencies to use it.
“Police needs to be able to talk to fire, to talk to EMS, to talk to water (utility), to talk to roads and bridges (department), to talk to other law enforcement agencies that we can’t do today,” Whittle said. “It’s almost absurd when you think about it.”
Whittle said he started 10 years ago trying to purchase a new radio system, but the $12 million price tag was too much for other agencies.
But when the county won a $13.5 million federal stimulus grant in 2010 to build a broadband network, an opportunity to improve the radio network presented itself, Whittle said.
Whittle said he offered the county the use of 1-percent sales tax funds set aside for emergency radio improvements to build two more communications towers, for seven in all.
And since the system will be linked to a broadband network, it will allow for data sending, such as texts, reports and photos.
For example, a deputy on patrol might come across a tree across a road. He could take a photo and send it to the roads and bridges department, so they know what to expect before sending a unit to clear the debris.
“It was obvious to everyone it would be a huge move forward,” Whittle said. “It helps the broadband system by having two additional towers and helps us and all county departments to improve coverage for those portable radios.”