Officials knock new radios
JANESVILLE As a Janesville police officer grappled with a suspect in the city's Fourth Ward, he radioed in for backup.
The officer radioed in again, this time shouting for help from other officers. Finally, the officer used a Taser on the suspect.
Still no reply.
The officer made three or four calls before one of the radio dispatches got through and other officers responded to help subdue the suspect, Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said. The other calls were cut off before they even reached dispatch.
The incident, which happened Sept. 13, was just six blocks from one of the department's digital radio receiver sites. It's an alarming example of the problems that Rock County's new digital radio system has had since it went online in June.
The problems include completely locked up radio receiver sites, spotty reception in the fringes of the county and calls that get cut off in the field—or never make it to dispatch, officials said.
Technicians from three digital radio vendors and officials at the Rock County 911 Center are scrambling to iron out the kinks in the $1.9 million radio system. Yet some local police and fire agencies say they're losing patience with the problems.
"It's very concerning to us," Moore said. "We have always striven to have portable (radio) coverage throughout the city. That's our standard."
That's not happening.
Some agencies, such as the Janesville Police Department, for weeks have toggled back and forth between digital transmissions to analog to try to keep a signal. Others, according to Milton Fire Chief Loren Lippincott, have relied on personal cell phones during digital radio logjams.
The county switched to all-digital radio communications to prepare for a federally mandated narrow banding of analog radio, which will take effect Jan. 1. The switch to digital was intended to maintain the same level of radio capability for countywide agencies when analog frequencies are curtailed.
Yet since July, it hasn't worked that way.
Kathy Sukus, Interim Director of Rock County 911, said the three vendors who installed the radio systems believe they've isolated and repaired a major glitch that has caused transmissions to and from local fire departments to go offline and in some cases completely lock up.
Crews learned the county software that converts radio transmissions from towers on County A in Janesville and Mill Street in Beloit were getting overloaded and locking up, she said.
That leads to dropped or blocked calls for fire departments because the system could not properly coordinate radio transmissions.
As of Monday and Tuesday, crews reported both the main towers had begun to relay transmissions without a single malfunction, Sukus said.
With that problem fixed, the vendors plan to work with the Janesville Police Department and other agencies on weak and spotty radio coverage, another problem that has plagued the new system, Sukus said.
That has led to garbled calls and transmissions being dropped between officers and smaller digital receiver sites around the county, she said. Those problems have left Janesville police and other agencies "more comfortable" using their old analog radio systems.
Testing is in early stages, but to expand and improve radio coverage, the county might have to install new digital receiver sites and, despite the potential cost, new towers, Sukus said.
For now, the vendors' troubleshooting isn't costing anything.
"It was part of the agreement, system acceptance," Sukus said. "It needs to work before we pay it. So we don't see a bill."
The bright spot, Moore said, is the county still has until the narrow banding deadline in January to iron out the glitches. Still, that's not stopping agencies from exerting pressure.
Moore said his department met with the radio systems' vendors and played 911 recordings and Vidmic footage of the officer who on Sept. 13 was struggling with a suspect but couldn't reach dispatch.
The footage was uncomfortable for the vendors to see and hear, but it needed to be played, he said.
"We're really looking for an improvement in radio coverage and clarity. And we're not bashful about holding people's feel to the fire to getting that accomplished," Moore said.
Lippincott said his department and others don't blame Rock County 911 for the problems.
"I'm displeased with the length of time it's taking, but I understand it's not the 911 center's fault. They're just as frustrated as we are," he said.
Agencies countywide have spent $4 million to purchase and install digital equipment that is supposed to be compatible with the county system, according to municipal records.
Janesville's police and fire departments alone have spent about $800,000 for the upgrades, Moore said. Milton Fire Department spent about $78,000 on digital gear, according to municipal records.
Lippincott said his agency and others are wondering when the equipment will actually operate properly.
"I guess from our standpoint, that is one of the biggest issues—the amount of money we spent," he said. "We should start getting what we paid for."