New Erie County, Pa., Public Safety Radio Project to Go Live

Erie County, Pa., emergency responders have operated for decades on a patchwork system of radios that, in some cases, prevented police officers and firefighters from talking with counterparts. That is poised to change.

by Matthew Rink, Erie Times-News / September 6, 2019

(TNS) — Erie County, Pa., emergency responders have operated for decades on a patchwork system of radios that, in some cases, prevented police officers and firefighters in one department from talking with their counterparts in another.

Those and other technological barriers will finally be removed at the end of September, when Erie County's $26.5 million Next Generation Public Safety Radio project is scheduled to go live after multiple delays.

But there's still much work to do in the coming weeks, including training emergency responders, dispatchers and others, and programming portable radios, which are in the process of being shipped to the Erie County Department of Public Safety.

"We don't have the equipment yet and we haven't done any training yet," said Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny, whose department will be the largest agency in Erie County affected by the change and the first to transition to the new system.

Early field testing of the Next Generation Public Safety Radio System shows that it is meeting industry standards in terms of coverage.

In early August, the Department of Public Safety conducted field testing both indoors and outdoors at more than 2,400 "points of interest" around the county with members of the public safety community. Radios had reception in 95.6 percent — or about 2,300 — of the locations during the initial testing phase. Follow-up testing confirmed that there are about 100 locations that could be problematic for the system.

The county will continue to work to make improvements and enhancements.

"But overall, the testing was very successful," Department of Public Safety director John Grappy said.

"I was out in the field myself," he said. "Areas down at Walnut Creek Access, Trout Run in Fairview or Lake Erie Community Park. I know that Fairfield and these other county departments, they were in sub-basements, they were in elevator shafts, they were in penthouses and it was loud and clear. I called on my portable radio from Fairview and talked to a chief in east county inside a building and it was loud and clear. And that's something that today's system is just not capable of."

The county has received its first shipment of new portable radios that will play an integral role in the network. Some 512 Viking VP6000 portable radios were delivered to the county last week. And technicians from vendor EFJohnson, a JVCKenwood company, began unpacking and programming those radios Tuesday. About 1,000 more radios will be delivered over the next two weeks.

The Viking VP6000 replaces what the county originally ordered, the VP600. Those portable radios were distributed to some police and fire agencies starting in October 2016. EFJohnson agreed to replace the older models at no cost to the county.

But doing so led to another delay. Licensing issues and damage to one of the communication tower sites during the 2017-2018 winter have also slowed the project, which was originally meant to launch at the end of 2018.

The project is aimed at replacing an antiquated, patchwork system of radio technology used by law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders that, in some cases, prevents interdepartmental communication. Dispatching consoles, communication towers, antennas, dishes, handheld radios and other equipment are being replaced as part of the project.

Safety forces will communicate within 56 different talk groups on the digital platform.

Erie County is paying for the project with a $19.4 million capital bond and more than $7 million from the county's reserves.

According to a July 30 report, all mobile radios built into police cruisers, fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles have already been installed. And new and existing communication towers have either been erected or enhanced.

Last week, the department held train-the-trainer sessions geared toward command staff members and training officers. Training for all users of the system will be held starting the week of Sept. 9. That will be followed by dispatch-console training the week of Sept. 16.

If all goes as planned, the system will go live in five steps, or zones, starting with the city of Erie, followed by Millcreek Township, then east Erie County communities, west county and, finally, south county. These five zones will make the transition within days of each other.

One of the only departments that won't make the switch will be the Millcreek Township Police Department, which has its own dispatch operation.

Still, the new system will enable Erie police to communicate directly with their Millcreek counterparts.

"Every time we would respond to an incident in Millcreek or Millcreek would come in to assist us, they were on a different system and we could not talk to each other," Spizarny said. "Whether it's a preplanned operation or it's a reaction to something occurring in an emergency, we have never had direct radio communication. So this will assist the region."

Spizarny also welcomes another new feature of the system: Encryption.

Plans call for the communications of law enforcement officers to be scrambled, meaning that the public will no longer be able to listen to radio traffic via a scanner — analog or digital — or on an online platform or a smartphone app like Broadcastify. The decision to encrypt was made by police agencies themselves. Encryption comes at an additional cost of $439,768, according to cost breakdowns of mobile and portable equipment.

Grappy has said that police agencies fear that the public's real-time access to scanner traffic allows criminals to track law enforcement movements, which therefore puts police officers and the public at risk. Asked earlier this year, neither Grappy nor Spizarny could point to a specific incident in which the public's access to law enforcement communications has resulted in an officer or a member of the public being injured.

Spizarny, however, reiterated Tuesday that encryption is one of the key advantages of the project for his officers.

"With the encrypted radio system officers will be able to communicate a little bit more freely, exchange information, more timely, about ongoing incidents," he said. "There are some things that we can say regarding tactics and things that we have to be very careful of. Once we go to an encrypted system, then we're going to be able to relay that information faster. We won't have to be telling somebody, 'Hey, give me a call, call me on the cell' and then passing it down the tree. That way we'll be able to provide tactical information in real-time. That'll be a huge time-saver for us."

©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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