Turn it off
When Johnson County, Ind.’s new 800-MHz digital trunked radio system failed to reach the city of Greenwood’s police officers at critical times such as vehicle pursuits and arrests in the face of resistance, Greenwood Police Chief Albert Hessman concluded that the risk to his officers was unacceptable. He had his department disconnected from the 5-month-old digital system and reactivated the department’s 10-year-old 150-MHz analog conventional system.
The closest digital system tower is 12 miles from Greenwood. Situated behind the police station, the analog system’s short tower covers Greenwood but doesn’t reach much farther.
“The county could have put a digital repeater on our tower and taken care of Greenwood. But its height wasn’t sufficient to reach other agencies at this end of the county. The White River Township Fire Department, which also has problems with the digital system, can’t be covered from our tower,” Hessman said.
Hessman decided early on to keep his analog system as a back-up. Switching over to it was relatively easy. But the White River fire department had sold its previous radio equipment. Indianapolis came to the rescue, allowing White River to reprogram its 800-MHz digital radios to use the nearby capital city’s 800-MHz analog repeaters until Johnson County’s system could be made right.
Johnson County was the first among Indiana’s 92 counties to implement a segment of a planned statewide public safety radio system; thus, the Johnson County system is something of a showcase.
“We were promised 95% coverage, 95% of the time with the equipment as installed. We never came remotely close to that. We were told that they had to change software, programming and volume adjustments. We were told that they had to fix this, repair that and tweak this, and this went on for months. In the next breath, they said the signal was not strong enough. Then they started using the reason that the way we’re using the radios is not how they’re not expected to be used,” Hessman said.
“No one wanted to move off center. People said, ‘It’s your local board, it’s their responsibility to fund a new tower. It’s the state — Project Hoosier SAFE-T. It’s Motorola’s responsibility to make it work.’ Everyone was pointing fingers at each other,” Hessman said.
Once he disconnected the 800-MHz system, Hessman received a higher level of attention, including a call from a state senator who had voted to fund the statewide system.
“I can only assume some phone calls were made and people were consulted and pressure was applied and they decided to make a good decision and fix it,” Hessman said.
Les Miller, executive director of Indiana’s Integrated Public Safety Commission, said that the commission understood and shared Hessman’s concern that his officers have effective radio coverage.
Project Hoosier SAFE-T
Miller said that Project Hoosier SAFE-T was designed to provide reliable radio communications for all public safety users in the state. He said that Johnson County was selected as one of the first areas in which to build the system to help the commission to address potential problems with the new technology.
Joe Pitcher, Johnson County’s attorney and its communications project manager, said that county officials had expected some problems with the system, including some possible coverage problems in the northern area of the county.
“Motorola initially gave us a proposal to add a third tower at county expense, but we chose not to implement the site at that time,” Pitcher said.
On July 11, Miller said that the current problems could be grouped into two categories:
“First, Motorola definitely had an issue with a specific hardware component in the system that they’ve fixed in the last two weeks. It’s not clear to us how long this component had been failing, but we suspect that it may have been responsible for many of the perceived coverage problems. Those users still on the system indicate that they are satisfied with the fix,” Miller said.
“Second, the SAFE-T system was designed to provide on-the-street coverage for mobile and portable radios, but would require enhancements by local agencies to provide in-building coverage. Compounding the problem, the Greenwood Police Department chose not to buy mobile radios and instead chose to operate their portable radios inside their vehicles, which reduces the portables’ range. Although the county declined to pay for a third tower, we are working with the IPSC board to devise a solution to their problem,” Miller said.
For his part, Pitcher said that he is confident that the problems in Greenwood can be addressed.
“While we certainly appreciate Chief Hessman’s recent concern with the radio system, Johnson County has a committee that has been working closely with IPSC staff to address these issues all along. We have many users in the county that feel this system is light-years ahead of our old system, and we are committed to finding solutions for the challenges that remain,” Pitcher said.
A decision was made to build a new tower closer to Greenwood. Motorola agreed to pay for the labor and installation. The state government will pay some of the equipment costs, and the county government will help with land acquisition.
“I still have some twinges of doubt whether this system will be what it is intended to be,” Hessman said. “I don’t know that public safety is ready for digital. Maybe not just yet. That’s why I sit back a little and see how it develops.”
Bishop is editorial director. His email address is [email protected].
The lowdown on the system
Johnson County’s $5.3 million 800-MHz system is part of Project Hoosier SAFE-T (Safety Acting for Everyone Together), which was launched in 1997 to develop a statewide voice and data system in Indiana.
The Motorola Astro SmartZone mixed-mode (analog and digital) system serves 900 users, including 12 fire departments and nine law enforcement agencies. The county purchased 165 Astro Spectra mobile radios for fire trucks, 680 XTS 3000 portable radios and 200 laptop mobile data computers. Dispatchers use 12 Motorola Centracom Gold Elite consoles.
Following the preparation of this story for the printed edition of Mobile Radio Technology, we had the opportunity to discuss the Johnson County system with Dick Mitchell, Motorola’s project director for the Indiana statewide radio communications network.
MRT: What’s the nature of the Johnson County system?Mitchell: It’s part of the Indiana state system with a 129-site design for 95 percent mobile coverage reliability and land mass coverage, plus 95 percent reliability of specifically designated areas for portable radios. The state system has much more extensive mobile coverage than portable coverage.The state’s goal is to bring on local users for interoperability. The concept is excellent and has been well-received by local governments, funding issues aside.Johnson County is the first county to build a portion of the statewide system. There are five cities within that county on the system. They have fire, volunteer fire, township fire, and police departments. Thirteen dispatch centers were upgraded to go onto the system.MRT: What about the number of towers?Mitchell: Our original design was three towers. Two of the towers were part of the original 129 towers. The cost of going into the first two towers was borne by the state. We proposed a third tower to cover the city of Greenwood in the northwest quadrant of the county. For reference purposes, Johnson is first county south of Indianapolis. We wanted interoperability with Marion County.The cost of the tower was more than what the county thought it could absorb. The county put together a consortium of representatives to make the decision. One member of the consortium was the assistant police chief of city of Greenwood. Included in the system were four cities plus the county sheriff with associated police and fire departments and nine townships with fire departments.MRT: So the final design was two towers?Mitchell: The consortium elected to use only the two sites that were part of the state design. The system was installed in January 2002, except for the city of Edinburgh. We ran coverage testing, and various entities were using radios. The mobile and portable coverage on the street was excellent in the early part of the year. Areas where we didn’t predict coverage had coverage. The county portrayed a high level of satisfaction. Then questions came up about in-building coverage. The state design didn’t provide for in-building coverage. Even so, cities near the towers, such as Franklin and New Whiteland, received good in-building coverage because they were so close to the towers. In mid-April, Edinburgh completed its new police building, and we installed the last dispatch console. The only problem we were aware of involved audio. We reset the audio levels. In June, we were advised of audio drops, warbling and garbled messages in the system.The county had been having a weekly meeting. Although we didn’t attend them all, we attended as many as three out of four, including members of my team and the sales force. Chief Hessman, who had not been involved with the Johnson County system decision-making, came to a June 10 meeting of the Integrated Public Safety Commission to speak up about a lack of coverage.MRT: Was this the first you heard about the problem?Mitchell: Yes, the first indication came during the weekly meeting of June 5. I brought in technical people to diagnose the problem. By June 10, Chief Hessman expressed concern to the entire Integrated Public Safety Committee, stating that the system was not working as it should, and that the audio had degraded.MRT: What did you find?Mitchell: In the process of diagnosing, we dealt with two symptoms.The first was a lack of in-building coverage in Greenwood. The second was audio drops and garbled messages. We isolated the second problem to a software issue. We identified that on June 28. We also had a clocking issue with the GPS clock. We corrected the clocking on that weekend. We burned new chips for the digital interface units and installed those on Monday.Meanwhile, on June 24, my team ran coverage tests. We bypassed the Greenwood console and set up our own control stations. Contrary to our design, we chose to duplicate how officers were actually using the radios—portables in cars with shoulder antenna. The dispatcher at Greenwood was monitoring and said she was getting drops. That’s what allowed us to isolate where the issue was—the DIUs and the software fix to address it.I’m proud of what we accomplished in a short time.On July 1, we had installed the upgraded DIUs. We tested them on July 2 from the console and had excellent audio. The dispatchers attested to that. At our weekly meeting on July 3, we shared our results and the corrective action that had been taken.MRT: What was the reaction? Mitchell: In Edinburgh, Police Chief Patrick L. Panky was concerned about the audio and talked about pulling out of the system.We met with him immediately. Edingurgh is a small town, but a tough town where police sometimes have to respond to fights. We brought a police officer in. My engineering manager rode with the officer, and one of our sales representatives rode with the assistant chief to go to areas where they had problems. We could not replicate problems. The officer said the system was working the best it had since it was installed.After the Independence Day holiday, I met with Chief Panky and the Johnson County dispatcher on July 8. They reported no problems and a good level of satisfaction.On July 10, I met again with the assistant chief from Greenwood. By then, Greenwood was not using the new system. But he said he had heard good reports. Chief Panky was there. The assistant chief said that his main concern was in-building coverage. In building coverage had not been included in the system design requested by the customer and was beyond the scope of our contract. I recommended he review the original system design with the county attorney and manager of the system project, Joe Pitcher.MRT: What was Chief Hessman’s involvement?Mitchell: Chief Hessman delegated the design and purchase decision to his assistant chief. I talked with Chief Hessman during the week of June 17th. He said, “Let me ask you a question. I’m reading the proposal for the first time.” Remember, this is June 17, 2002, and he was reading the April 2001 document in which Motorola proposed the third tower.“Motorola proposed a tower,” the chief said. I said yes. “Well, why wasn’t it put in?” I said that I believed it was a cost issue, but that he should talk with his assistant chief who was a member of the decision-making consortium, because we weren’t told specifically.At the weekly consortium meeting of July 3, Chief Hessman told the group that it should listen to what Motorola recommends because “they know the business, and if you had done what they said, we wouldn’t be in this problem.”I think the chief now has a better understanding of the decision process.MRT: What happened just before the Greenwood police disconnected from the new 800 MHz system?Mitchell: At the June 19 weekly meeting, Chief Hessman indicated that if the performance didn’t improve, he would go back to the old system.I spoke with Joe Pitcher. I was concerned with audio quality and officer safety.I said that I had no objection. The way the system was performing at the time, I could see how he might be better off using the old system. I believe Mr. Pitcher relayed my comment to the chief. Shortly after that, the city reverted back to their old system until their new tower was put in place.MRT: What do you say about in-building coverage?Mitchell: Chief Hessman asked a good question: How do you provide a radio system without in-building coverage? The answer is that it’s not what the statewide system required.The position the state took is that, if in-building coverage is required, the locals have to fund the additional equipment.In the case of Johnson County, to fix Greenwood’s problem, the state will put the tower up and pay for it. We’ll pay for labor.In-building coverage is a big issue across the country. Motorola often hears about it after a system is activated. If it doesn’t provide the in-building coverage that the customer wants, we have to go back in time and look at what was planned and approved. It almost always is a funding issue.MRT: How can a recurrence be avoided?Mitchell: We have met with the state officials since this problem came up in Johnson County, and that’s one thing we laid on the table. It’s not enough for customers to look at a coverage map. We need to understand how they’re using the system they have. We need to ask, “What level of coverage you have, and do you understand what you’ll get with the new system?”We asked those questions of the people we talked to, but in Johnson County, it turned out that they didn’t represent the entire customer base. We won’t repeat that oversight.MRT: What progress are you making with a third tower?Mitchell: Currently we have three candidates that are under review. Two are currently constructed, the third would be new construction. A city councilman came forward to offer land for the tower. The county would have to grant a zoning change.If the site can be confirmed as available and if it meets FAA aviation obstruction restrictions, we’ll rerun the coverage maps so everyone sees what the results would be. We showed some preliminary maps, and they seemed satisfied with them.The coverage prediction model, which is something we checked, has proved to be accurate and somewhat conservative.