Law enforcement agencies responding to a manhunt in Florida recently were hampered when they were unable to speak with each other because their radio systems were incompatible.

One Lake County sheriff’s deputy was killed and two others wounded when they were ambushed while responding to a domestic dispute.

During the ensuing manhunt--the largest in county history, with 500 officers from 20 agencies responding--officers were frustrated by a lack interoperable communications because Lake County, north of Orlando, is the only county in Central Florida still operating a conventional VHF system, while most of the rest of the region operates 800 MHz digital trunking systems, said Jason Mathews, radio system analyst for the sheriff’s department.

Compounding matters was a decision to disable one repeater in favor of another one that in theory would provide better coverage but which in reality resulted in chaos, said Mathews, the lead communications officer on the scene.

“Obviously it was a big mistake because it completely shut us down,” he said. “This occurred when most of the agencies were still responding, so it caused a bit of confusion as to where the scene was. It was right in the middle of the Ocala National Forest, off a small county road that most people coming up from Orlando wouldn’t have been able to find without directions.”

To compensate, many officers tried to rely on their Nextel push-to-talk handsets, with predictable results, Mathews said. “The [cellular] towers in those rural areas aren’t designed to support that much activity,” he said. “The infrastructure they set up for the Daytona 500 would have had a hard time keeping up with that demand. It was challenging.”

Nextel provided support by rolling a COW (cell site on wheels) within 90 minutes after the carrier’s engineers were apprised of the situation, Mathews said.