Little Rock PD heading to digital.

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tvpixguy

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This story appeared in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, front page of section B.

Radio-system upgrade in works

SPENCER WILLEMS
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

The Little Rock Police Department is going digital — eventually.
Chief of Police Stuart Thomas said he is moving forward with the first of many big-ticket improvements for his department, namely a $9 million overhaul of the city’s 27-year-old communication system.
Voters approved raising the city’s sales tax by 1 percentage point in September. Part of the tax will cover new capital expenses and personnel funding for his department, Thomas said. Modernizing public-safety communications was his biggest and most immediate priority.
“It’s our entire first response emergency service for [Pulaski] county,” Thomas said. “If this system goes down, police don’t talk to police, we can’t dispatch fire, we can’t dispatch ambulances. ... It’s fundamental to our operations, and it’s a very old and failure-prone system we’re living on now.”
Thomas said he’ll submit his final proposal to the city in December in hopes of qualifying for a nearly $1 million discount from the city’s communications provider, Motorola.
The city’s analog publicsafety radio was a central talking point for Thomas and other city leaders stumping for the city’s two sales-tax proposals: a three-eighths percent sales tax for capital expenses that expires in 10 years and a permanent fiveeighths percent sales tax. Both take effect Jan. 1 and will increase the city’s sales tax from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent.
Laura Martin, manager of the city’s communications network, said the concerns espoused by city board members and public-safety officials were a stark reality.
“The doom and gloom is real,” Martin said. “There are multiple limitations and in the case of faulty equipment, we’re unable to replace it.”
The old system is not only limited by outdated technology, but finding ways to repair such old technology is nearly impossible, Martin said.
When lightning struck one of the system’s three towers last year, the service provider had to hunt down the engineers who designed the system, more than 20 years ago, and pulled them out of retirement to rebuild the system.
Beyond maintenance pains, which Thomas said cost the city about $700,000 a year, the new upgrades will plug area agencies into the Arkansas Wireless Information Network.
The network, a $49 million project which went online in 2006, was built to allow for seamless communication and coordination for agencies across the state in the event of a disaster.
Of the roughly 900 city, county, state and federal entities on the network, 259 are law-enforcement agencies.
While Thomas said local agencies are able to communicate with each other on the old analog network, he said communication will be improved by joining the network, and it also will allow Little Rock to take the lead in the event of a catastrophe.
“If we have a mass-casualty event or something that draws us into a statewide operation, we’ll be able to basically talk with anyone in the state wherever they may be,” Thomas said. “In our standing it’s very important. If a disaster occurs anywhere in the state, we are impacted in some fashion. We’ll either be an evacuation point or the direction of the trauma movement of casualties. ... We’ll have to coordinate that with all area facilities.”
In its role as the statewide trauma call center, Metropolitan Emergency Management Services director Jon Swanson said his organization has been preparing for the switch for some time and welcomes the forthcoming upgrades.
“There have been times when the system has gone down ... it’s not crippled completely, but it’s severely handicapped,” Swanson said. “[With a situation of] mass casualties, or if [emergency crews] have to transport someone a long distance, we can coordinate that movement and monitor that patient’s status.”
To make the complete leap to digital, Thomas said it will take at least 18 months to secure financing, install new infrastructure including a new tower, and reprogram the city’s 5,000 radios. A tower site hasn’t been picked.
“It’s a very complicated project,” Thomas said. “But we’d like to get things moving as soon as possible.”
Little Rock isn’t the only agency that will have to get moving with upgrades.
Little Rock’s radio system has been the backbone for agencies in Pulaski County, and has been providing radio support for county authorities as well as those in North Little Rock and Sherwood and smaller agencies such as Maumelle and Cammack Village.
Those subscribers will have to upgrade their own call centers, as well as their own radios, to be able to use the new all-digital channels.
Pulaski County sheriff’s office Maj. David Doty said his agency has been preparing for this transition for roughly five years and slowly investing in radios for when the new Little Rock system goes online.
North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays wanted to follow Little Rock’s lead by passing a 1 percent sales tax to, in part, pay for upgrades to its own communications system in order to be compatible with Little Rock’s network.
The upgrades are expected to cost North Little Rock between $4 million and $5 million. Hays did not respond to several phone calls to his office Tuesday and Wednesday, but has said that even with the sales-tax increase failure, that money will have to come from somewhere.
North Little Rock’s emergency services coordinator, Rick Ezell, said he had hoped to have additional sales-tax money to revamp his communications network.
“That didn’t happen,” Ezell said. “We need to come up with the money one way or another.”
Ezell said that of the city’s roughly 1,000 radios, 300 are digitally compatible. But the real costs will come with new equipment for the city’s call center.
“[Little Rock] is the main bone of the system and we’re a part of that system,” Ezell said. “If they move to digital, we need to start making some decisions.”
 
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