Iowa Responders Break the Silence with New Joint Radio System

The new system is allowing neighboring emergency responders to communicate smoothly for the first time in 40 years.

by Justine Brown / June 9, 2014
The Iowa flood of 2008 exposed flaws in emergency communications. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Iowa is often called the “land between two rivers.” With the Mississippi River forming its eastern boundary and the Missouri River its western, the state is no stranger to floods. But the spring of 2008 was different. As months of snowmelt saturated the Upper Mississippi River Basin, a seemingly endless string of spring storms pounded the state. In the two-week period between May 29 and June 12, many parts of Iowa received more than 9 inches of rain (the average is 2.45 inches).

On June 8, 2008, the Cedar River crested and the city of Cedar Rapids became inundated with floodwaters. About 10 square miles of the city, including most of the downtown area, was under water. Mays Island — which included the Cedar Rapids city hall, Linn County courthouse, county jail and federal courthouse — was flooded to the second-floor level. In addition to damaging more than 5,000 houses and 1,000 businesses, the flood caused tremendous disruption to the city’s utilities. Electricity and natural gas were cut off. Telephone and Internet service were also disrupted.

And amid the chaos, another problem became painfully obvious: Emergency responders in three key areas affected by the flood — Linn County, Cedar Rapids and Marion — could not communicate with each other because each of them operated on disparate radio systems.

“The flood exposed significant flaws in our emergency communications,” said Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner. “It affected our efforts to evacuate neighborhoods. And the police and sheriff’s departments took a massive number of phone calls simply because officers couldn’t talk to each other on the same radio frequency.”

The Search for Solutions

The communication challenges first responders in Cedar Rapids faced during the floods germinated over a number of decades. Years ago, the police departments in Cedar Rapids, Linn County and Marion could talk to each other using low-band radio. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the jurisdictions went their separate ways, according to Gardner.

“The cities of Marion and Cedar Rapids moved to UHF, and Linn County went to VHF. At that point, Cedar Rapids and Marion could continue to talk to each other, but Linn County could not,” Gardner said. “Things stayed that way until around 2000 when the city of Cedar Rapids moved over to [800 MHz]. From then on out, all three of us were on separate, disparate radio systems and no one could directly communicate with each other.”

With Linn County on VHF, Cedar Rapids on 800 and Marion on UHF, communication was possible, but certainly not easy.

“You would radio to dispatch, we would call your dispatch, they would call their officer, their officer would relay back to their dispatcher, their dispatcher would relay back to us and we would relay back to our officer,” said Joe McCarville, public safety dispatch assistant manager for Cedar Rapids.

“We were like the poster child for disparity,” said Charlie McClintock, communications director for the Joint Communications Agency of the Cedar Rapids Police Department. “We could utilize a computer tool that allowed us to patch frequencies from each of the different bands together so we could talk in an emergency, but it was just one frequency. It was very cumbersome, and if it was a larger event, having just the one frequency really didn’t work very well.”

Efforts to remedy the situation had been attempted several times over the years, but were always stalled or hit a roadblock. The floods made it painfully obvious that something had to change. So in 2009, Gardner along with then-Cedar Rapids Police Chief Greg Graham and Marion Police Chief Harry Daugherty approached the Linn County Board of Supervisors and the Cedar Rapids and Marion city councils to explain the need for a new communications system.

With an impending narrow banding mandate from the FCC and an 800 MHz system on “life support” because of the lack of available new parts, it was time to act, Gardner said. “It was the perfect time to work together and move toward one seamless radio system for all first responders.”

Gardner, Graham and Daugherty got permission from their jurisdictions’ governing bodies to hire a research firm to evaluate whether it would be fiscally responsible to invest in a joint communications system. After passing that test, an RFP was created and the project went to bid. The eventual winner was Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., which proposed an 800 MHz P25IP digital trunked radio system.

In February 2014, Cedar Rapids, Marion and all of Linn County began using the new radio system, allowing for a more coordinated response to emergencies and other calls for service.

The system infrastructure costs, which totaled $19.2 million, were split among the entities (Cedar Rapids 50 percent, Linn County 30 percent and Marion 20 percent), with each being responsible for the purchase of its own portable and mobile radios. In addition, Linn County purchased radios for nearly all other emergency responders located in the county, outside of Cedar Rapids and Marion.

About 2,000 portable and mobile radios are on the new system, which, beyond law enforcement, fire and EMS, includes the Linn County juvenile detention, health, LIFTS transportation system for elderly and disabled citizens, and the secondary roads and conservation departments.

Enabling Efficiency

Building the new system had its challenges. For example, tower sites and microwave shots were built out, but by the time they were ready to be turned on, interferences had emerged. The primary instance involved shooting through a landfill area. The landfill had long ago been closed, but in order to accommodate the massive amount of debris created by the flood damage, it was temporarily reopened and grew significantly.

“We had to go back and re-angle our antennas,” McClintock said. “It was something we didn’t see coming because the landfill was decommissioned. It’s stuff like that you never think is going to happen that can put a wrench in your plans.”

The new system also came with unexpected benefits. For example, the same Harris 800 MHz P25 digital trunked radio system is also used in Johnson County. This facilitated the creation of a Linn/Johnson County corridor radio system that enables emergency responders from both counties to smoothly communicate with each other.

“The Harris system was already in existence in Johnson County south of us, so we were able to piggyback on their system,” Gardner said. “We each have our own controllers so we can operate independently of each other, but we were able to use each other’s infrastructure.”

That creates a seamless corridor, so in theory a firefighter in extreme northwest Linn County could talk to a police officer in extreme eastern Johnson County on the same system.

“We can handle each other’s call loads more efficiently too,” said Tom Jones, executive director of the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communications Center. “If a disaster similar to the floods happened today, we’d have the capacity to pick up that load better, and the strain on resources would be much less.”

The eventual goal is to add more counties to the system to enable a multiregion system.

“The more we add, the better we’ll be able to communicate,” Jones said. “That also means shared maintenance costs, which lowers the price for everyone.”

Forty Years in the Making

The most important aspect of the new joint communications system is that it has allowed emergency responders in Linn County, Cedar Rapids and Marion to talk to each other on the same radios and same frequency for the first time in 40 years. Should another flood hit the area, emergency personnel in the region are confident they’re better prepared.

“Everybody involved should see a benefit from being able to communicate,” McCarville said. “Everybody is listening to and hearing the same thing and that speeds up response.”

In addition, the system will make it easier to communicate with outside agencies that may volunteer to help during an emergency. During the flooding in the corridor, for example, Cedar Rapids police said Minnesota was generous enough to send officers to help. Unfortunately no one could communicate with the officers by radio to direct their efforts. With the new system, outside agencies can be more easily patched in so all parties can communicate and coordinate.

Given that Iowa is the “land between two rivers,” being prepared for the next potential flood or other natural disaster is critical.

“The stars just aligned correctly to make this happen — the flood, the narrow banding mandate and the willingness among the key players to work together to enable better communications,” Gardner said. “And it’s not just for emergencies. Day-to-day, this system will make it easier for us to communicate and accomplish our missions more effectively.”

This story was originally published by Emergency Management