Radio system is under attack
Cumberland County’s M/A-COM Open Sky 800 MHz radio system isn’t covering all of the borough of Shippensburg, one of 33 municipalities in the Pennsylvania county.
“We’ve got holes,” said Shippensburg Police Chief Fred Scott. “We had total coverage on our old VHF system, but the new one has dead areas. In an emergency, we don’t know if our officers can successfully call for help.”
Ironically, the new M/ACOM digital trunked system was supposed to improve communications in Cumberland County, which covers 550 square miles of mountains and valleys in southcentral Pennsylvania. And it has, said Ted Wise, the county’s director of public safety. Before the new radio system was built, under the guidance of M/ACOM and the Cumberland County Transition Committee, the area’s 17 police departments, 37 fire departments and 12 EMS agencies had “no interoperability or other desired features of a true public-safety radio system,” Wise said. “At the request of local emergency services, we wanted to upgrade our system. That’s why we moved to digital trunked 800 MHz and Open Sky. Thanks to the new system, we can now have the system performance features and the ability for numerous local and state agencies to talk to each other.”
To build its Open Sky system, Cumberland County spent more than $10 million, including grants of $2.3 million to assist the local governments, which spend an additional $3.5 million. (Shippensburg spent $100,000 on its own upgrades.) Twelve new transmission sites were brought on line, giving the system a total of 17 tower sites.
About 2000 users were equipped with new Open Sky handhelds (1514) and mobiles (634). At press time, Cumberland County’s fire and EMS agencies were on the verge of moving onto the new system. Cumberland County police departments already have made the move, with Shippensburg being the first to do so in December 2005.
For Scott, being first hasn’t been much fun. It’s not just the dead zones that annoy him; it’s also the response to his complaints.
“M/A-COM does tests, then tells us that the system should work and that our dead zones are being caused by interference from Nextel,” Scott said. “They also say that all I can ask for is 95% coverage. Well, the old system gave 100%!”
M/ACOM area sales manager Roger Kohr said there are myriad issues that contribute to Shippensburg’s dead zones, but the borough is wellcovered by transmission sites. “There’s one on the north side of the borough, one on the south side, and two more towers up on the mountain,” Kohr said.
However, he admitted that these sites do not provide 100% coverage of Shippensburg County and argued that doing so would be too expensive for county and local governments.
“The laws of physics make it very difficult and costly to reach 100% coverage,” Kohr said. “It would be very cost-prohibitive.”
For his part, Cumberland County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bruce Barclay wonders what all the fuss is about. “Every time we have received a complaint from Shippensburg, we have researched the problem and tried to come up with a resolution,” Barclay said. “In one instance, we put up a new tower.”
As for Scott’s complaints of ongoing dead zones? This comes as news to Barclay. “If he doesn’t tell us about the problems, we won’t know about the problems,” he said.
While this dispute continues, Shippensburg police are watching out for dead zones and switching to their backup communications system when they occur. That system is their Nextel cell phones, the same ones whose towers are causing interference problems locally. “At least we get 100% coverage with our Nextels,” Scott said. “So we’ll use them when we have to.
“The rest of the emergency agencies such as fire and EMS go active [in late July],” he added. “The ones of us that have complained about this system are waiting for [this]. Then the fireworks will start.”