Pricey state radio system catches static on reliability

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NeFire242

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LINCOLN — By the time a State Patrol SWAT team had arrived on a quiet June morning, a drug addict had already shot up an Alliance, Neb., pharmacy, taken the owner hostage and wounded a local police officer.

The gunman, armed with an AK-47, was resisting calls to give up and was shooting at any sound he heard.

But law enforcement had another problem during the 14-hour standoff.

Digital radios carried by state troopers — part of the state's new, $17.3 million communications system that went into effect nearly two years ago — weren't working. Responders not only had trouble talking with each other and their command post, but also to the dozens of police and deputies from other agencies who responded.

Some troopers taking cover from gunfire had to resort to using personal cellphones to communicate.

“Pings” from the malfunctioning radios went off unexpectedly, betraying the location of some officers trying to sneak closer to the pharmacy entrances.

Eventually the patrol resorted to the oldest communication system in the book: having runners shuttle messages to a command post. The daring sprints across the street left troopers dangerously exposed.

The patrol's experience at Alliance and some 481 other “problem reports” filed since March are raising questions about the performance of the new state radio system and whether it is achieving its goals.

One goal was to eliminate “dead spots” — places where law enforcement had no radio contact — and provide coverage to at least 95 percent of the state's 77,000 square miles.

Another goal was to improve radio communications among public safety agencies, a concept called “interoperability.”

The World-Herald examined the problem reports and interviewed several law enforcement officials, including some who spoke on the condition they not be named. The reporting revealed dozens of reports of garbled messages, “busy” signals when contacting dispatchers or other troopers, and a lack of radio signals.

The goal of interoperability appears to be years away. More local agencies would have to invest in new equipment and join the system, which now involves only 12 state agencies, the Nebraska Public Power District and one sheriff's office.

Meanwhile, more of the state's 500 fire departments would need to upgrade their radios to get access to emergency channels. A state committee continues to pursue ways to seamlessly “patch in” incompatible radio systems — such as those in Omaha and Lincoln — with the state system.

For now, some sheriffs have installed extra scanners or issued their older technology radios to state troopers so they can talk with each other. And the State Patrol has kept its old radios as a backup until the new communication system gets its final OK, which is expected in mid-2013.

Though state officials say that such technological upgrades come with problems, they insist that bugs with equipment and operator errors are being addressed. They say the system is improving daily.

Others express frustration that progress hasn't come faster.

Lincoln County Sheriff Jerome Kramer, who heads the lone “local” agency on the statewide system, said the digital signal has eliminated some traditional dead spots in canyons south of North Platte. But his deputies are surprised to find new dead spots in unlikely locations, in the middle of villages, and have had trouble mastering the new technology during pressure situations, when effective radio communications are essential.

“I like things that are simple in stressful situations. And this isn't,” Kramer said. “Our old radio system was very, very simple. Now we don't quite have that luxury.”

State officials acknowledge there has been a “learning curve” with the new higher-tech system as well as some equipment problems.

Faulty antennas were replaced on 29 of the 51 towers across the state in October. The patrol also has changed the location of antennas on cruisers, which officials say has reduced signal blockages and improved coverage.

State officials insist that the new statewide radio system is a tremendous improvement and that performance has improved, and will improve even more, as users get accustomed to it.

“We continue to make progress, but technology is complex and it's not easy,” said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, a user of the radio system. “It's going to take time.”

“We've given them new tools and more tools to increase public safety. Agencies have a larger area of coverage, more opportunity to communicate and an ability to interoperate,” said Brenda Decker, the state's chief information officer, whose office is overseeing development of the new system.

Col. David Sankey, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, echoed those comments, saying additional training and the equipment upgrades have reduced problems.

Sankey said the problems in Alliance were the result of a “perfect storm” of events. Troopers from the Panhandle carried radios that day that had recently received a software upgrade, while troopers from other areas carried radios that had not, which confused the new computer-driven radio system.

That, compounded by unfamiliarity with the new system and signals being blocked by brick buildings in Alliance's downtown area, made communications “more difficult,” Sankey said.

He rejected the notion that public or trooper safety was compromised.

“Our people adapted, they overcame, they figured out how to make things work,” the patrol superintendent said. “We've learned from that.”

Three law enforcement officials were wounded: Alliance Police Officer Kirk Felker was shot and wounded as he walked into the pharmacy in response to the initial call of an armed robbery; Trooper Timothy Flick and Police Officer Matt Shannon were wounded later when the gunman fired blindly through a wall after he heard talking.

The drugstore owner, Chas Lierk, was shot and wounded when he made a dash for freedom. The 14-hour ordeal ended when troopers stormed the building and shot and killed the 27-year-old gunman, Andres “Andy” Gonzalez.

Sankey emphasized that trooper safety is the patrol's utmost concern and that every reported problem with the new radio system is tracked down and addressed.

“I do think that the system is going to make our troopers more efficient in the long run,” he said.

To be sure, creating a statewide emergency radio system that all agencies can use is a complex, expensive and lengthy process.

The new digital radio system replaces analog technology that dates to the 1950s. No one, not even the Lincoln County sheriff, advocates returning to the old system, which had many blank spots with no radio coverage and was plagued with increasing problems with interference.

A decade ago, South Dakota switched to a statewide digital emergency radio system that, like Nebraska's, is made by Motorola. It took eight years before all the bugs were worked out, according to Jeff Pierce of the South Dakota Bureau of Information and Telecommunications.

Pierce was project manager for the more ambitious South Dakota system, which, unlike Nebraska, required all state agencies and hundreds of local fire, police and sheriff's offices, along with federal and tribal agencies, to join. As a result, South Dakota has 20,000 radios on its $35 million system — 10 times more than Nebraska.

Nebraska took a less costly, voluntary approach, under the guidance of a committee headed by then-Lt. Gov. Dave Heineman. The committee chose not to invest in a single statewide system, deeming the $85 million to $100 million cost too expensive.

As an alternative, eight regional radio groups were formed to improve communications between the fire and law enforcement agencies in those regions. About $60 million, almost all from federal grants, was spent. But while regional communications were enhanced, gaps remained when trying to connect, via radio, with state agencies at multi-agency events or emergencies, such as at last summer's wildfires.

To finance the state radio system, the state partnered with NPPD, which needed to replace its outdated radio system that stretched across 91 of the state's 93 counties. The state provided $7.9 million to buy new radios and convert towers, while NPPD provided $7.7 million. Federal homeland security grants provided the rest.

The State Patrol, Game and Parks Commission, State Fire Marshal's Office and the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency are among the 12 state agencies using the state system. A communications official with NPPD, Dave Webb, said the public utility has been pleased with the new system and with the clearer reception and greater coverage it has provided.

Only one local agency, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, has chosen to make the switch to compatible digital radios so they can join the state radio system, although other local agencies are said to be looking at the possibility.

Pierce said that Nebraska's more modest approach should shorten the shakedown period but that some problems with equipment and user error are to be expected, even with extensive training.

User errors are more common initially, Pierce and others said, because digital radio systems are more complicated, with more channels and new protocols for handling certain calls or talking with certain agencies. Users must be more disciplined and make messages short so they don't talk over others.

Older radio systems, for instance, had only a handful of channels, compared with the up to 2,000 available on digital radio systems. The new technology also must be taught to a wide range of users, from troopers who use it daily to volunteers who might use it once a year.

“Time really addresses a lot of those issues after people get used to how this works,” Pierce said.

He added that, a decade ago, federal grants were more available to finance the expensive switch-over to digital radios.

Money has been an obstacle in Nebraska.

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner and Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller both said that until their current radio systems get to the end of their life span, it didn't make financial sense to switch to the state's system.

Until then, they've issued radios to local state troopers so the agencies can talk with one another. Miller said his deputies just started testing a new protocol to patch into the state system.

For those using the new system, the road has been rocky, based on the problem reports:

» Sept. 1 — A trooper inside a house couldn't talk via radio with another trooper during a foot pursuit of a suspect in the Lincoln area. The troopers were unable to switch to the old radio system, which has been kept in cruisers as a safety precaution until the state fully accepts the new radio system.

» Sept. 3 — A trooper answering a disturbance call in Arnold, Neb., could not reach dispatch. The incident, the report said, nearly escalated into an assault on the officer.

» Oct. 19 — A state trooper in Beatrice reported losing a radio connection after backing up 15 feet in the downtown area.

» Oct. 19 — A dispatcher in Norfolk got a busy signal when trying to broadcast a report of a possible child abduction.

» Nov. 2 — Troopers' mobile radios did not work as they approached a house to deliver a drug search warrant.

» Nov. 6 — A trooper got garble when trying to contact a dispatcher, even though the trooper was sitting in the parking lot of the patrol's Norfolk office, where the dispatcher is located.

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