Fla. radio system bolsters firefighter safety

By Stephen Hudak
The Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

TAVARES, Fla. — When killer tornadoes tore through Lake County 2 1/2 years ago, first-responders fanned out into the dark disaster, disconnected from their command centers and colleagues because communication networks failed.

The storm, which killed 21 people in Lady Lake and Lake Mack, again exposed a flawed emergency-communication system that had hampered police and paramedics in other crises, including the manhunt for a suspect who murdered deputy Wayne Koester in 2005.

In the wake of that storm, Lake County Public Safety Director Gary Kaiser renewed a promise to create a reliable, interagency communication network connecting public-safety professionals across the entire county.

At 10 a.m. Monday, the county will launch that system, a $34 million, 800-megahertz network. It's a major event for everyone in Lake, according to Gregory Holcomb, communication technologies director for public safety.

"There's nothing more important than the safety of the first-responders and the safety of the citizens of Lake County," Holcomb said.

Fruitland Park's J.M. Isom, who as public-safety director serves as police and fire chief, said the new system will ease concerns of police and fire professionals who had feared losing contact with fellow officers and dispatch centers under the patchwork communications network that had blanketed the county.

"It'll be a godsend," Isom said. "I know my people will be safer and able to stay in touch now wherever duty takes them."

He said the new radios include a global-positioning feature that will allow officers in distress to call for help with a button that will pinpoint their location for colleagues.

Kaiser said public-safety organizations in Lake County, which include the Sheriff's Office, Lake-Sumter Emergency Medical Services, Florida Highway Patrol, and police and fire agencies in 14 communities, had lacked a dependable communication network. He used the deadly 2007 tornadoes to highlight the need for the new system.

"Law-enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical staff from different jurisdictions lacked the means of communicating to one another," Kaiser said. "Some carried two or three different radios just for this purpose."

The new system will rely on 18 radio towers, three times as many as the outgoing system.

The extra structures provide overlapping signals that make the network less vulnerable to storms powerful enough to topple towers as the tornado in the Lake Mack area did.

Holcomb said the new network also will help first-responders here to connect better with colleagues in neighboring Orange, Osceola, Marion, Polk and Seminole counties, which employ similar state-of-the-art communication systems.

Copyright 2009 Sentinel Communications Co.

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