Digital radios put Colo. responders, agencies on same frequency

By Nick Bonham
The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

PUEBLO, Colo. — There's a new band in town that's flooding the air waves.

The band, however, isn't a musical group, and the radio frequency can't be found on AM or FM radio dials.

The band is the Colorado Statewide Digital Trunked Radio System, a post 9/11 initiative to align law enforcement and public safety agencies on the same, more efficient radio frequency.

The analog radio waves that Pueblo's sheriff, police and fire departments have long used to communicate have been replaced, upgraded to the digital system.

As a result of the new technology, radio transmissions are clearer, and the communication possibilities are endless. The digital transition also meets the Federal Communication Commissions' 2013 deadline of narrowing radio bands, a move similar to the recent digital television conversion earlier this year.

"It's a statewide system of which probably 90 percent of the public safety responders (in Colorado) are now all on the same radio systems so they can communicate with each other," said David Balsick of Wireless Data Service, or WDSL, the Bessemer company that guided the city and county through the lengthy upgrade.

"Originally, (there were) almost 47 radio systems (throughout Pueblo County) spread across two radio bands. The old (radio) bands are so trashed by how they've been handled, it was a mess. There is no way to reorganize or clean it up. Everyone has to go to new standards."

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., exposed the incapability of government agencies from all levels to effectively communicate with each other via radios.

That's accomplished now on a narrower, 800-megahertz digital frequency.

"It wasn't just the police and fire departments who couldn't talk to each other at 9/11," Balsick said. "The new digital radios offer so many new features. All the city agencies, the county agencies, all the fire departments and volunteer fire departments, no matter where they're at, they can communicate with each other."

Local hospitals, ambulance services, animal welfare, and School District 70 are on the new radio system.

The destructive brush fire in March 2008 on Red Creek Springs Road, according to Undersheriff JR Hall, highlighted the importance for local agencies to communicate on the same radio frequency.

"We were trying to contact the Pueblo Fire Department, who we could see, but because of the fire, the wind and the apparatus, we couldn't directly talk to them. We had to call on our radios to our (dispatch) center so they could contact the city's (dispatch) center to tell the firefighter about a propane tank near some flames," Hall said.

Technology isn't cheap.

The digital upgrade required building five new 185-foot radio towers and buying at least 2,800 vehicle-mounted and hand-held radios, an overall cost of $9 million.

"The amazing piece to this is there's four or five funding streams — all (paid with) state and federal grants," said Mark Mears, bureau chief of the Pueblo County Sheriff Department's Emergency Services Bureau.

Pueblo County and the city of Pueblo worked together on the transition and used grants from the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, Colorado Wireless Interoperability Network and funds from state and federal levels of Homeland Security.

Mears credited his predecessor, Steve Douglas, who retired in January, with securing a lot of the funding, doing the planning and preparing for the transition.

Pueblo County commissioners even went to the length of hiring a full-time radio-systems coordinator to assure the transition went smoothly, Mears said.

The new radio towers are scattered throughout the county: on Jackson Hill west of Pueblo, 12 Mile Road in Beulah and in Pueblo on Goat Hill, Walking Stick and the campus of the Colorado Mental Health Institute.

The radios, whether they're on belt loops or in vehicles, cost between $2,700 and $3,000 — discounted rates, Balsick said. A few radios cost as much as $5,000 and are made to withstand "explosive environments," said Mears.

In terms of maintenance, Mears said all the radios come with a four-year service warranty. Pueblo Police Chief Jim Billings said the city's radio shop has the ability to service the equipment.

Agencies communicate on their designated "primary channels," which can be heard by the public. There are also assigned "talk groups," where multiple agencies can communicate on the same frequency in the event of a wildfire, for example.

"They're computers that are connected to your hip," said Hall. "It's very technology-driven,"

Billings said the digital frequency has erased radio "dead spots" in the community, geographical areas where, on the former analog system, officers would lose radio transmission.

"Officers felt it jeopardized them. There were spots where you couldn't hear, and the other officers couldn't hear you. Conceivably, (with the digital radios) I can be in Washington, D.C., and listen on my radio to what's happening at home," Billings said.

Locally, the digital transition has been in the making since 2002. Agencies gradually switched over this year. "It's been a wonderful and huge job, and and the officers and firefighters have taken to it very well," Balsick said.

Technology's wake, however, has produced a surplus of obsolete equipment.

"We're trying to reuse some of the radios," said Mears. "There's not a large market for that, but we're trying to figure it out."

Copyright 2009 The Pueblo Chieftain

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