2001 — the year in review:
Is 800-megahertz just a wrong number?
Public safety agencies found themselves getting plenty of static from the telecommunications industry in 2001, with a number of police departments around the country finding their new, more powerful 800-megahertz communication systems subject to dead zones and other problems caused by nearby cell towers.
Nationwide efforts to research the issue were led by law enforcement in Washington County, Ore., and the city of Portland. On two occasions in nearby Tigard, a dead zone that silences radios just blocks from the police station prevented officers from calling for backup while facing armed suspects.
“The problem exists primarily at this time with Nextel because the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] licensed them with the public safety band,” said Capt. Gary Schrader. “They bought up empty or available spectrum laced throughout the public safety segment set aside by the FCC. As a result, if there’s a Nextel tower near where you’re trying to transmit and they happen to be transmitting at a frequency very close to yours, their power will override our radios and then you can’t transmit and can’t receive.”
In August, county and municipal officials met with public safety managers and representatives from Nextel Communications in Portland to outline a plan that would separate into individual blocks more than 250 intertwined 800-megahertz frequencies.
In Bloomington, Ill., the problem was so bad that Police Chief Roger Aiken said he would be doubling up patrol units to ensure officer safety. The $3-million system that the Bloomington police share with police in Normal and McLean County was not designed to include enough towers to provide adequate coverage, said Shawn Walker, director of the McLean County 911 Center. A systemwide failure during the summer that lasted for 90 minutes forced the Bloomington department to borrow a dozen old radios from the Normal police just in case of another crash.
In Orange County, Calif., a grand jury in May announced that officials would have to shell out perhaps millions more to fix a deeply flawed $80-million police communications system. The 800-megahertz system was designed to enhance communication among law enforcement and emergency personnel, but transmission failures arose soon after Tustin and Irvine police began using it. To bring the radio system up to an adequate level, antenna sites will have to be installed and poorly designed hand-held units replaced, said the panel. The grand jury also proposed that developers help pay for improvements to ensure coverage inside new and old buildings.
Overall, the country’s 911 system earned only a grade of “B” from the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). The report, issued Sept. 11, said that quality of service rated an “A,” but both public education and availability were still not up to par. The system’s ability to accommodate new technologies earned it a “D.” Said the report: “911 needs sufficient investment if it is to meet challenges that will impact future services.”
The implementation of an E-911 system, which would allow police to track a cell-phone call to within 150 to 1,000 feet of its location, took on a new urgency after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. While the public safety communications community insists that the necessary technology exists, industry delays by telecommunications giants such as Nextel Communications, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless have held up progress and managed to infuriate some members of Congress. In a letter to FCC chairman Michael K. Powell on July 31, Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D.-Calif.) and 15 other lawmakers maintained that further delays in 911 deployment “may result in loss of life.”
Several police agencies last year joined the ranks of those using a reverse-911 system for emergency notifications of residents:
Florida’s Emergency Management Preparedness and Assistance Trust Fund awarded the Juno Beach Police Department a $40,000 grant for a system that would alert residents about water main breaks, hurricane evacuations and other emergency situations.
The Saco, Maine, Police Department will use a $12,000 federal grant to set up a system that Chief Richard Nason said would be useful for letting residents know about dangerous coastal storms.
After concluding that fire department sirens may be unworkable when it comes to alerting residents of emergencies, the Saratoga County, N.Y., Public Safety Committee said in October that it will explore the possibility of installing a reverse-911 system.
In April, Riverdale, Ga., Police Chief Mike Edwards said a $25,000 reverse-911 system should be operational by June.
Among other incidents involving the nation’s emergency communications system in 2001:
A Bernalillo County, N.M., dispatcher helped save the life of a dog last year when he talked a 10-year-old boy through a successful Heimlich maneuver.
Colonie, N.Y., police arrested a man in March for patronizing a prostitute after he continued to call the police department’s emergency number, mistakenly believing it to be the number of an escort service.
In July, a Lick Creek, W.Va., woman fielded numerous calls meant for the State Police after a technical glitch routed the calls to her number.