Ra­dio up­date sought since 9/11 ap­proved

$68M sys­tem to let all nearby first re­spon­ders talk in­stantly in cri­sis

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By NAOMI MARTIN Staff Writer nmartin@dal­las­news.com

Dur­ing the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks, first re­spon­ders in New York City had trou­ble talk­ing to each other on ra­dios, lead­ing to more chaos that deadly day. After­ward, fed­eral au­thor­i­ties told lo­cal agen­cies to dig­i­tize their ra­dio sys­tems to en­able such com­mu­ni­ca­tions, but it’s taken the bet­ter part of two decades for Dal­las to catch up to the costly rec­om­men­da­tions.

Now, Dal­las po­lice and fire­fight­ers and county sher­iff’s deputies could soon be able to use their ra­dios to in­stantly talk to other first re­spon­ders nearby.

County com­mis­sion­ers this week ap­proved a $68 mil­lion con­tract with the city and Mo­torola that will up­grade the out­dated ra­dios and pro­vide

main­te­nance for 15 years. Be­cause the city of Dal­las needs far more ra­dios than the county does, of­fi­cials said, Dal­las is pay­ing 75 per­cent of the costs, while the county’s share is 25 per­cent. The City Coun­cil will vote on the deal next week.

In re­sponse to the 9/11 at­tacks, a fed­eral panel rec­om­mended all first re­spon­ders move to a dig­i­tal sys­tem called Project 25, or P25, that would al­low for dif­fer­ent de­part­ments to talk on the same chan­nel. The Mo­torola up­grades will bring Dal­las in line with neigh­bor­ing cities and make the Dal­las area much safer in case of a ma­jor dis­as­ter or at­tack, of­fi­cials told the City Coun­cil Wed­nes­day.

“If there is a crit­i­cal in­ci­dent, we’re able to switch to one chan­nel where we’re all able to com­mu­ni­cate,” said Dal­las Po­lice Chief U. Re­nee Hall. “That, in essence, cre­ates a more safe, com­fort­able area for us. We can work col­lec­tively to­gether.”

The new ra­dios will also be smaller and work in­side build­ings and in ar­eas that are now dead zones both in the city and out­side it, Hall said.

Cur­rently, first re­spon­ders can com­mu­ni­cate with other ar­eas, but it’s a clunky, time­con­sum­ing process that is in­ad­e­quate, said Dal­las Fire Chief David Coat­ney. Also, of­fi­cials said, the sys­tem now in use is more than 40 years old and is sus­cep­ti­ble to se­cu­rity breaches.

“This is the di­rec­tion for us to move,” Coat­ney said.

Mo­torola vs. Har­ris

This is the third phase of an over­haul for first re­spon­der ra­dios in Dal­las. In 2013, nearly 9,000 ra­dios were up­graded to be P25 com­pli­ant at a cost of $27.7 mil­lion.

That up­date also in­volved “nar­row­band­ing,” al­low­ing for ra­dio traf­fic to flow faster. In 2014, the city com­pleted a $6.6 mil­lion mi­crowave re­place­ment, which im­proved re­li­a­bil­ity and ca­pac­ity.

For this pro­posed phase of im­prove­ments, the city eval­u­ated pro­pos­als from two ven­dors, Mo­torola and Har­ris, based on their price, ex­pe­ri­ence, func­tion­al­ity and busi­ness in­clu­sion. In the end, the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee scored Mo­torola 85 and Har­ris 77.

The new sys­tem will en­crypt con­ver­sa­tions to pro­tect sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion and will track first re­spon­ders’ lo­ca­tions, which will keep them safer dur­ing emer­gen­cies, of­fi­cials said.

If the coun­cil ap­proves the deal next week, Mo­torola will be­gin as­sess­ing the tow­ers and in­fra­struc­ture in Dal­las, said Bill Finch, the city’s chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer. Af­ter that, the com­pany will be­gin man­u­fac­tur­ing the nec­es­sary parts, which city of­fi­cials will mon­i­tor.

Im­ple­men­ta­tion will take 30 months.

The joint deal has been in the works since at least 2008, said Mark Weathersby, the county ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions manager. By now, many neigh­bor­ing cities have up­graded to the new tech­nol­ogy, Weathersby said, such as Ad­di­son, Farm­ers Branch, Cop­pell, Richard­son, Grand Prairie, Irv­ing, Mesquite, Gar­land and Rowlett.

DFW In­ter­na­tional Air­port is also part of the new sys­tem, as are state and fed­eral agen­cies, he said.

“We’re late to the party,” Weathersby said.

Dur­ing a cri­sis

County Judge Clay Jenk­ins said he saw first­hand the need for such tech­nol­ogy dur­ing the Ebola cri­sis in 2014. He was trav­el­ing in a Home­land Se­cu­rity ve­hi­cle that couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate with Dal­las po­lice or EMS, so his car had to pull up to a Dal­las po­lice car so the of­fi­cer could hand him a po­lice ra­dio, he said.

“I’m de­lighted with the way it’s worked out,” Jenk­ins said.

County Com­mis­sioner John Wi­ley Price said he was “ec­static” that the project was mov­ing for­ward af­ter years of dis­cus­sions, since the county ra­dios badly need an up­grade.

“We’ve been keep­ing to­gether with bub­ble gum and bal­ing wire,” Price said. “We’ve been work­ing on a wing and a prayer. It’s about pub­lic safety.”

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