Public Safety & Homeland Security

If Terrorists Hit Dallas, Would First Responder Radios be Ready?

County commissioners this week approved a $68 million contract with the city and Motorola that will upgrade the outdated radios and provide maintenance for 15 years.

by Naomi Martin, The Dallas Morning News / December 7, 2017

(TNS) - 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.

But if officials in the city and county have their way, Dallas police and firefighters and county sheriff's deputies will 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County commissioners this week approved a $68 million contract with the city and Motorola that will upgrade the outdated radios and provide maintenance for 15 years.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, time-consuming 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.

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

"We're late to the party," Weathersby said.

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 bailing wire," Price said. "We've been working on a wing and a prayer. It's about public safety."

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