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Car 54 Where Are You...?

With field performance that often sounds like toy walkie-talkies and shrinking bandwidth, what’s an agency to do these days with antique radio systems?

October 01, 2001  |  by Lois Pilant Grossman

Yet the San Diego Regional Communications Center successfully dispatches 170 agencies from a single location. Similar communications partnerships are shaping up in Utah and Colorado. One reason is that agencies are tired of being slaves to manufacturers' proprietary systems. Another reason is the enormous cost of buying, owning and maintaining a communications infrastructure. According to Tom Tolman, communications director at the NLECTC office in Denver, regional partnerships are a move away from owning and controlling every aspect of a communications system. In Florida, for example, the state is considering turning its radio towers over to its communications service provider and then leasing access to the system. The only thing state and local agencies would own is the peripheral equipment: radios, cell phones, pagers and the like. In exchange for the provider's long-term ownership or long-term lease of the towers would be the provider's ability to use the tower for other business. In addition, the provider would refund a portion of the state's lease payments back to the state.

Patches and Switches - An admittedly interim solution is a "patch," like the Border Tactical Communications System (BORTAC) in San Diego. It is the modern equivalent of a telephone switchboard, and is activated when one agency requests a patch to another. The dispatcher at the central location simply uses a mouse to connect icons representing the agencies on a computer screen. Voice transmissions come into the central location and are remodulated and transmitted in a voice format appropriate for the receiver's radio. Low band, VHF, UHF, conventional, trunked and 800 MHz systems all communicate directly with one another, without delay or the potential error of the traditional officer-to-dispatcher-to-dispatcher-to-officer communication. BORTAC connects 16 federal, state and local agencies in the area and has prompted the formation of RIO-Com, a similar patch that connects 11 agencies in the South Texas area. Similarly, the ACU-1000, located at the Alexandria (Va.) Police Department, is an experimental switch that allowed the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the U.S. Park Police, the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police to communicate with one another for the first time during this year's inauguration ceremonies.

Internet ... The Final Frontier?

Some believe the Internet may provide the ultimate solution for voice communications and data transmission. Where the Internet once had the ability to transmit only text and graphics, it is now sophisticated enough to transmit voice.

"The ability to send voice over the Internet is opening up a whole slew of capabilities for public safety," Tolman said. "Texas, for example, is a huge area. How do you get transmitters to cover it? A microwave manufacturer says give us the dollars and we'll give you point-to-point microwaves. But that's expensive. With voiceover IP, dispatch centers can bring up transmitters through the Internet. That technology, I predict, will revolutionize communications. States with fewer populations will be able to increase their coverage without investing huge amounts of money."

In the interim, agencies across the country are finding their own solutions. They are creative and self-sufficient. They don't expect some federal agency to come in and fix it for them. In Washington and Idaho, training became the low-tech solution when the idea for a regional communications system tanked, Lanpher said. "We train in teams and in multi-agency incidents like the riot, we respond in teams. At least one member has a radio that can communicate with their own agency. The others don't even turn their radios on. We don't split up and we communicate with a lot of hand signals. It's worked well for us."

Today's agencies are wise enough to do their homework. They no longer depend entirely on a salesman's pitch or a manufacturer's data sheet. They are also more cost conscious. As technology advances and the commercial market gets saturated, manufacturers have looked at law enforcement with eager eyes. But where agencies once were at the mercy of a manufacturer, the tables are turning. With so many options, manufacturers are willing to cut prices and work out cost-effective solutions not available before.

Advances in technology have opened up an entirely new world of communications, some of it very complex. In its report, "Understanding Wireless Communications in Public Safety: A Guidebook to Technology, Issues, Planning and Management, the NLECTC predicts: "At no time in the history of public safety communications have so many options been available. Technological advances and regulatory changes have combined to make selecting a communications system very complex. As we move into the future, it is unlikely to get any better."

When an officer pushes the transmit button, the rest should be automatic and reliable. Communication systems have to deliver performance from all locations and conditions. It’s only the officers’ lives on the line...

On that bright note, law enforcement is encouraged to be diligent in its research, careful in its expenditures and suspicious of anyone who says they have the perfect answer ...


Understanding Wireless Communications in Public Safety: A Guidebook to Technology, Issues, Planning and Management, August 2000, (NCJ 180211), published by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center. Log on to, or to download.

Federal Communications Commission:, 888-225-5322. For the FCC rules, go to at the Government Printing Office.

Public Safety Wireless Network:, 800-565-7796. PSWN is a program created by the Federal Law Enforcement Wireless Users Group to address interoperability issues among public safety agencies.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), U.S. Department of Commerce: www., 202-482-7002, 1401 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20230. The NTIA works with federal, state, and local public safety agencies to address future spectrum requirements.

Telecom Glossary 2000: The definitive, albeit somewhat technical, glossary of telecommunications terms. Go to

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST):, Office of Law Enforcement Standards, 100 Bureau Drive, M/S 8100, Gaithersburg, MD 20899, 301-975-2757, or [email protected] As the primary standards setting body in the U.S., NIST, in conjunction with the Office of Law Enforcement Standards, has undertaken the development of wireless telecommunication and information technology standards, along with guidelines for interoperability and information sharing, and the interim analysis of current and emerging communications technologies.

National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC): www.npstc.; NPSTC, Support Office, 2050 East Iliff Avenue, Denver CO 80208, 303-871-2439. NPSTC is a federation of associations representing public safety telecommunications. Its purpose is act as a resource and advocate for public safety telecommunications issues.

Lois Pilant Grossman gave up gainful employment as the editor of a police-related magazine to write regularly for the NIJ. Now she has seen the light and decided to use her expertise in technology to explain complicated things to the editor of POLICE.

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