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Problems with digital radio network force Kanawha to keep using analog system

By Rusty Marks, Staff writer

Kanawha County sheriff’s deputies are reporting problems with a $40 million digital radio system that is supposed to allow emergency responders to talk to one another all over West Virginia.

“It’s a great idea, but it needs more development to come to fruition,” said sheriff’s department spokesman Cpl. Brian Humphreys.

In January 2010, the Kanawha County Commission held a special ceremony at the Courthouse to start passing out more than 740 new digital radios for use by emergency-service providers in the county. The radios were funded by a $1 million appropriation orchestrated by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

The radios were to be part of an interoperative radio system to improve radio coverage and allow agencies all over the state to communicate with each other. Terrance Lively, public information officer for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the state has spent about $40 million on the digital radio network. Some of the money came from state and federal grants and is part of a nationwide push to upgrade emergency services to digital communications.

Lively said about 70 radio towers have been built across the state, with another six towers planned or under construction.

“Right now, most of the state is covered,” Lively said. “Depending on how you look at it, it’s about 70 or 80 percent, geographically.”

The digital radios are touted as being clearer and having a longer range than analog radios. Emergency responders are supposed to be able to communicate from inside buildings and be able to tie into communications systems statewide.

The problem, Kanawha County deputies found, is that, sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.

“There are still too many unknowns and too many problems with the new system for us to trust it,” Humphreys said.

Sgt. B.K. Carper, the Kanawha sheriff’s training coordinator, said deputies have been using the digital radios and keeping their analog radios as backup. Faced with a big price tag to upgrade the decades-old analog system, the department had considered getting rid of the old radios altogether and switching over to the all-digital system.

Last week, deputies began a 10-day field test of the digital radios. Carper said deputies were asked to keep a detailed daily log of how the radios perform, and report back to headquarters.

They found that the radios work well — when they work — but Carper said there were a surprising number of problems with the new system.

“We were testing the limits of where it would and would not work,” he said.

While the digital radios work in some areas where the old analog radios can’t get a signal, there are also areas of the county where the old radios work but the new ones don’t.

“Cross Lanes was a huge problem,” Carper said. He said deputies found that their new radios didn’t work in Cross Lanes at all, even though there are three digital radio towers not far away that should have picked up their signals.

Statewide, reactions to the new radio system have been mixed.

“It solved some issues, but there were others it created,” said Capt. James Agee of the St. Albans Police Department. St. Albans and Nitro were among the first agencies in Kanawha County to adopt the new system, and share a radio frequency.

“It’s not perfect but, in 25 years, I’ve never seen a perfect radio system,” he said.

Nitro Police Chief Brian Oxley acknowledged that there have been some outages and “hiccups” with the new system but said Nitro’s coverage under their old radio system was so bad that the digital system is a definite improvement.

“We went from about 60-percent coverage to about 90-percent coverage,” Oxley said. “I know some other agencies have had larger problems. For us, it’s still 100 percent better.”

Carper said the digital nature of the radios makes it difficult for deputies to recognize one another by voice. Once they get on the radio, no one else can use a particular frequency until they’re done, he said.

Carper and Humphreys said deputies probably could get used to some of the idiosyncrasies of the new system, but they say the technology isn’t yet good enough to make it worth the effort.

“There’s a learning curve with any new system,” Humphreys said. “If we thought it were worth it, we’d be willing to learn how to use it.”

For now, even with its limitations, Kanawha deputies are going to stick with their old radio system.

“It’s the devil we know,” Humphreys said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com, call 304-348-1215 or follow @rusty_marks on Twitter.


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