Detroit and Windsor: A Tale of Two Cities and Their Public Safety Networks
Detroit and Windsor: Separated geographically by the Detroit River and politically by the U.S.-Canadian border, these two cities have grown cheek-by-jowl for the past 200 years. Yet, despite their proximity, these Michigan and Ontario cities are two different—and separated—places.
For one thing, Detroit’s municipal population is nearly one million. Windsor is actually the 15th largest city in Canada, but its population still numbers less than 300,000 souls, making it a small city by U.S. standards. Another difference is that Detroit is one of America’s major urban centers, whereas Windsor has traditionally lived in the shadow of its bigger U.S. sister city.
Then there are the public safety radio networks. Detroit and Windsor differ widely in this aspect as well. In fact, you can literally say that they’re not on the same wavelength.
Detroit: Established network
Public safety radio is no modernism in Detroit. In fact, Detroit Police Commissioner William Rutledge began testing radio-equipped patrol cars back in 1921. In those early days of radio technology, Detroit’s police cars were only equipped with one-way receivers. Still, when it came to fast dispatch, one-way broadcasts from headquarters were a vast improvement over no broadcasts at all.
According to the Detroit News, this early public safety network had its own unique problems. For instance, the radios’ delicate vacuum tubes had to be housed in padded cases. Also, the cars’ electrical systems weren’t strong enough to power these 6V units, so external batteries had to be mounted on the cars’ running boards. To make life more complicated, those batteries only lasted for four hours, at best.
Then there was the issue of the Detroit Police broadcast station, which was licensed on the AM band. Because of that band position, the headquarters-based station, “KOP,” frequently ran afoul of the Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner of the FCC. The FRC insisted that KOP air “entertainment during regular hours, with police calls interspersed as required.” In response, Commissioner Rutledge replied, “Do we have to play a violin solo before we dispatch the police to catch a criminal?”
Times have changed. Since going full-time in 1922, Detroit’s public safety networks have grown in size and scope. Today, they serve “every city department except the Department of Transportation,” said Lt. Michael Terrell, the Detroit Police’s senior supervisor of radio maintenance technicians. “This means we cover police, fire, EMS, the water board, certain hospitals, boats, city engineers, animal control and the zoo.”
To do this, Detroit operates multiple transmitter sites throughout the city, Terrell noted. The city also runs a maintenance facility at Belle Isle to repair its Motorola and Ericsson mobiles and portables.
However, the integrated approach doesn’t mean that everyone can push a button and talk to everyone else. Different departments are on different bands. For instance, the Detroit Police operate two 400MHz UHF networks and an 800MHz trunking system, Terrell said. However, the city’s fire department and EMS operate in the VHF highband, while the water board uses lowband VHF and 800MHz trunked communications. Departmental interoperability has yet to be achieved. There are no links between these networks yet so that police can talk to fire, and so forth. In general, each department tends to rely on its own dispatch center and its own people.
Windsor: New network
In contrast, the Windsor’s public safety network is all about integration. That’s because in 1996 the city’s police, fire and public works departments took a look at their aging, separate systems and decided to combine them into one 800MHz trunked network. The result? Today everyone—except EMS, which is still on an older VHF network—can talk to each other during emergencies. The Windsor city network even has a common channel open to all services, said Italo Carducci, director of emergency communications for Windsor Fire & Rescue. In times of crisis, this common channel can bring everyone up to speed in a hurry.
A case in point was a November 2000 maintenance tragedy at the cross-river Ambassador Bridge. One painter drowned when an under-bridge scaffold suddenly collapsed. Two other painters fell into the river, and four more were left dangling by their safety harnesses.
As it turned out, “The first call we received was from a public works truck driver passing by, who saw these people hanging and called us for help,” said Carducci. Thanks to the common channel, all services, except EMS, heard the call as it came in, thus saving precious response time. (In fact, except for the first drowned man, all the other painters were successfully rescued.)
Windsor Fire & Rescue is currently operating on a Motorola 800MHz network using 12 channels, with MPS-2000 and Spectra mobiles deployed in the field. Like Detroit, the network operates using three towers strategically placed across the city, with services coordinated through the Windsor Fire & Rescue Communications Division.
When will the system include Windsor EMS? The only reason it is separate now is because the Ontario provincial government, not the city, operates the ambulance service, Carducci said. Windsor Fire & Rescue does maintain dedicated telephone links to help EMS stay in touch with everyone else.
Obviously, two such different cities have different challenges when it comes to public safety networks. For Detroit, the challenge is its aging 400MHz technology.
“Four hundred megahertz has been a real workhorse for us,” said Detroit Police Inspector John Mlynarczyk. “It does the job we need done in the field today. However, it’s an ongoing task to keep this technology maintained and functioning.”
As a result, Detroit is considering buying a new 800MHz system and following Windsor’s example by creating an integrated communications network. The price tag isn’t cheap, said Mlynarczyk. “In fact, it’s about $50 million to $60 million, which makes it a major expense. However, the benefits of 800MHz, with its trunking capabilities, would offer a lot of benefits to all of us, and go a long way to justifying this expense.”
Meanwhile, even with its new 800MHz network, Windsor has problems of its own.
“Our biggest challenge is to ensure that the technology runs smoothly,” Carducci said. “We’re running a three-site simulcast, so it’s important that everything runs as it’s supposed to.”
Two solitudes, radio-wise
So, what about cross-jurisdiction interoperability? With two differing radio systems, how do the adjacent cities of Detroit and Windsor work together? The answer depends on whom you talk to. For instance, neither Mlynarczyk nor Terrell can remember Detroit Police ever coordinating radio communications with Windsor.
“We tend to work our own turf,” Mlynarczyk explained. Ground access between the two cities/countries is limited to the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, both of which are toll facilities and therefore unlikely spots for a high-speed chase to cross jurisdictions.
However, the situation is different for Windsor Fire & Rescue. “We quite often work with the Detroit Fire Department,” Carducci said. “For instance, we both respond to the Windsor Tunnel.” (The DWT runs under the Detroit River to link the cities.) “As well, since we don’t have a fireboat, they help us out on the Detroit River whenever something happens on our side.”
So how does Windsor talk to Detroit, and vice versa? Sometimes the simplest solution presents itself. “We’ve overcome the problem by lending each other a few radios,” answered Carducci. “In this way, when we need to talk to each other, we can.”
A more connected future?
So what will happen when all of Detroit’s agencies migrate to 800MHz trunked technology? One can only guess. However, it seems reasonable to expect that, once Detroit and Windsor are in the same bandwidth and using the same technology, they’ll begin talking to each other on a regular basis. But until that day, these two adjacent cities’ public safety networks remain as separate as those of Los Angeles and Toronto.
Careless is a freelance telecommunications journalist based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His email address is email@example.com.