The first systems I encountered were legacy systems that were just regular conventional radio for Suffolk County, N.Y., which I joined in 1965. We had just three or four frequencies that we used to talk to the entire county of 900 square miles.

We used satellite receivers in order to put portables out on the street. I introduced portable radios to the first precinct in the early 1970s. It was just a pilot project that was supposed to last only 90 days, and then I was supposed to take the radios out. But they refused to give them up. That was an early indication that a portable radio in the hands of a cop was very important.

I realized that frequencies were really scarce, and we were not going to be able to move ahead and do anything with what we had in the VHF realm because no more frequencies were available. In the late 1980s, I worked with New York/New Jersey Port Authority, Nassau County and Bergen County, N.J. We eventually became the regional planning group, and we went after spectrum in the 800 MHz band.

That was the early concept of 800 MHz. In the early 1990s, we wound up getting the 800 MHz band, and I wound up with Suffolk County getting 20 channels in that band.

Trunking was a big-time change. I remember talking with one of my bosses, and I told him that I needed to get out and do some training with each one of our officers to push this system. He said, “It's radio. What's the big deal?” I told him that this isn't radio anymore. It's a small computer in the hands of an officer — it's going to have a lot of beeps and bops and boops, and they're not going to know what to do with it.

As I was starting to transition the system, we had the TWA crash; 800 MHz proved itself to be a very important frequency, operation-wise. It also was our first encounter with interference from the cellular people — although we didn't realize it at the time.

The day we set it up, the system was in perfect operation; the radios were working fine. But two days later, the cells on wheels came in from Nextel and AT&T and blew us out of the water. We didn't find out what was causing the problem until a couple of years later. So it was an early education for us.

The next thing we did was start looking for other frequencies we could possibly use. We worked with Nassau and the New York City police department and Bergen County police, and we actually wound up getting the FCC to give us TV Channel 16 for land mobile radio. We used it for mobile data, and it eventually transitioned into some frequencies for interoperability between the three departments.

To me, the concept of the [New York statewide network] project is the most important thing that public safety has to look at, because it's the ultimate in interoperability. It brings together the police, fire and EMS — it allows them to talk to one another, if in fact there's a need. And often, there is a need.
as told to Donny Jackson

Vinny Stile is a past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.