Radio glitches vex Philadelphia police
In Philadelphia, the city’s police union is berating the alleged inadequacies of the department’s two-year-old, $52 million 800 MHz radio system and claiming that system failures are creating life-threatening situations for officers.
Perhaps as a result of the ongoing frustration felt by police personnel concerning their radios and the network, system vendor Motorola is providing 24/7 support. At the same time, the city has hired a consultant to help sort out interference and signal-fading problems. In addition, city officials continue to work closely with cellular providers Cingular and Nextel to mitigate interference issues that plague 800 MHz public-safety communications.
While the police, justifiably concerned about their safety, would like some fast answers, there aren’t any, according to most people involved in the situation, because no single problem can be pinpointed.
“Problems occur with any radio system, telephony system, [or] network. … Some of those are occurring [but] some of it is user anxiety more than anything else,” said Frank Punzo, who, as the city’s communications superintendent in the Department of Public Property, has responsibility for the radio system.
While Punzo is a technologist, police officers generally aren’t. When their radios don’t work as they expect, all they know is that they want someone to fix the problem — yesterday.
“The work that Philadelphia police officers perform responding to over one million calls a year requires the commitment that the equipment, which we use daily, actually works,” said Robert V. Eddis, president of Philadelphia Lodge No. 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police during a Jan. 3 press conference.
Eddis, who did not return multiple phone calls for further clarification, pointed to three alleged system malfunctions between Christmas and the press conference.
“The answer is always the same — no one is sure in most cases what caused it. More importantly, no one can say that the problem will be fixed so that it doesn’t occur again,” Eddis said.
Butch Harley, the FOP’s recording secretary in a later phone conversation said that the police see the situation as “a continuing problem, from what I know, between Motorola, Verizon” and others. “There’s bleedover in the system.”
Punzo said two of those problems were relatively minor. A console knob got stuck in the down position, and a circuit failed, forcing the system to go into backup mode.
The second incident was not true failure, said Punzo, “but an outage of a particular circuit.”
According to Punzo, Verizon was doing some testing and inadvertently took down a dual set of T-1s, which caused the situation. “That lasted about four minutes until the system was brought back up,” he said. “It was not overarching system affecting; it affected that particular console at that particular time.”
In the system’s early days, a 36-minute outage occurred, “but the police weren’t truly operational at that time,” Punzo said. “Since then, there has been no complete system outage. Whatever number of hours that is over almost a two-and-a-half year period, it’s been down for 36 minutes.”
Under most technology circumstances, that’s an impressive reliability record. For a police officer in the field, it’s cause for concern. Added to these failures are ongoing problems with blind spots on the city’s fringes and in its subway system (the original contract excluded subway coverage).
While the police generally point the finger at the radios, there are many more factors involved, said John McFadden, a special advisor to Motorola, which sold the original system. McFadden noted that this is not new technology, it’s just new for the Philadelphia police.
“It’s a system that’s in use in 200 other municipalities; Baltimore is one. They went to see Baltimore before they purchased this system,” McFadden said. “This is not a case where they’re working their way through bugs. This is pretty stable technology.”
It’s also not all Motorola technology.
“When you get a network of this magnitude, you have other vendors involved. You have tie lines, fiber optics, phone lines,” said McFadden. “I think the issue is there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly are the problems.”
It’s logical to blame the radios, McFadden conceded.
“If they (police) always think it’s the radio, we need to talk and explain they have a sophisticated network, and the radio is part of it,” he said.
Adding to the problems is the interference caused by cell towers throughout the area, as both Nextel and Cingular operate in the 800 MHz band currently shared with public safety.
“If an officer gets close to a cell site where there’s interference, he can have problems with his communications,” said a Nextel spokesman. “That’s happened in many parts of the country, not just Philadelphia.”
Nextel and Cingular are both working with the city to mitigate the problems — identified so far at about 56 sites, Punzo said.
“There are a lot of ways we can try to mitigate the interference,” said a Cingular spokeswoman. “It’s going to be specific to each situation whether or not it’s just Cingular or a combination of factors. It’s on a case-by-case basis.”
Of course, a broader solution is in the offing, as the FCC has ordered Nextel to reband the 800 MHz airwaves to solve interference. As of press time, Nextel had yet to decide whether it would accept the terms of the order, though most analysts believe it will. Nevertheless, this is no quick fix; rebanding is expected to take three years, though larger population centers such as Philadelphia are expected to be rebanded within the first year.
These are familiar issues to people who deal with technology on a daily basis. However, police personnel don’t want to be involved with them, and their frustration was evident during the press conference.
“The public must realize that there is a chance that when they call for help, we will not come. This is not because we don’t want to respond, it is because we never received the call. Why? Because the call occurred during a ‘radio failure,’” Eddis said.
Actually, the system is more reliable than that statement would indicate, said Dan Fee, a spokesman for Philadelphia Mayor John Street.
“Over the last two-and-a-half years since it’s been implemented, there’ve been a couple of outages. The backup system has always kicked in. There are a couple different backups, but they’ve always picked up,” Fee said. “The city’s doing everything it can to make sure that we figure out what exactly any problems have been and how best to fix them.”
The old system had its own flaws, to say nothing of the fact that it was on its last legs and was delivering spotty coverage throughout the city, according to multiple sources. For one thing, it was completely car-based, with no portable component, McFadden said. For another, officers and dispatchers could step all over each other during major incidents when transmissions come fast and furious.
“When you get into a new system, you get amnesia about the old system,” McFadden said.