Despite technology, first responders operating on different frequencies

By Ed Timms and Tanya Eiserer
Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Despite unprecedented advances in technology, law enforcement agencies still struggle to communicate with each other during high-speed chases that streak through several different cities or counties.

That was the case earlier this week, when a 29-year-old man led Dallas County Precinct 2 deputy constables and other law enforcement officers on a wild chase through four cities.

Precinct 2 Constable Michael Gothard said Thursday that his deputies were unable to communicate directly with Department of Public Safety troopers who also were in pursuit. Deputy constables tried to call it off as rush hour approached, but since they couldn't communicate with DPS cars, they rejoined the chase.

About 90 minutes after the chase started, the suspect, Shane W. Michel, collided with a pickup. Michel, who was critically injured, was hospitalized for several days before being transferred to the county jail. The driver of the pickup was not seriously injured.

The Dallas Police Department's helicopter was able to transmit information on traffic conditions to the deputies during the chase, Gothard said, but deputies could not communicate directly with a DPS helicopter that also tracked Michel's speeding car for part of the chase.

He said his office could communicate with the DPS only via telephone.

"Not everybody is on the same frequency," Gothard said.

Key concern

Communications between first responders, such as police, firefighters and emergency personnel, has been a pressing issue for many years, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

A warning from a New York City police helicopter that the second World Trade Center tower was about to collapse did not reach many rescue personnel because the police and fire departments operated on different radio systems - which, critics say, increased the death toll from the nation's deadliest terrorist attack.

Many of the fire and police departments that responded to the attack on the Pentagon also could not communicate directly with each other.

Considerable time and expense has been devoted to improving communications among first responders since 911. That is still a work in progress, and the recession may make it harder.

Jonathan Holt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments official, said first responders in the Dallas area are well-positioned to deal with a major incident at a specific location, where they can talk on hand-held radios using designated channels, within a limited radius.

Mobile command vehicles that are now available, he said, also can help with longer-distance communications between agencies.

"The problem with big chases and things like that is ... you migrate from different location to different location," said Holt, the council of governments' public safety radio communications coordinator. "They are so fluid and they're so fast-moving."

As a result, law enforcement personnel from different agencies, driving vehicles equipped with radios using proprietary technology and different frequency bands, may not be able to talk with each other directly.

Even if they have hand-held radios that use common frequencies, their limited range - and simply trying to use them during a high-speed chase - might be problematic. Some dispatch centers can "patch" officers using different frequency bands together, but that is difficult when events are moving quickly.

"When you are in a fast-paced, moving environment, sometimes seconds count," said Mike Simpson, the state's communications interoperability coordinator. "Officers are out there in a dangerous environment." And it's a problem, he said, if they can see each other "but can't talk to each other."

The ability to communicate also is critical when first responders from different parts of the state or different states are called upon to help in a major disaster such as a hurricane or tornado.

Instead of relying on a hodgepodge of proprietary equipment that uses different frequency bands, Simpson said, state officials are encouraging law enforcement agencies to refit a digital system known as Project 25 (P25) by 2015 that makes interoperability - or talking to each other on the radio - easier.

P25 system

The Austin area had the state's first major P25 digital system, which was completed about five years ago.

"We have all the jurisdictions from multiple counties all on the same radio system," Simpson said. "The highway patrol can talk to the DEA ... the Secret Service... to a garbage truck." In a high-speed chase, he said, communications between law enforcement personnel from different agencies can be instantaneous.

But that ability comes at a cost. Simpson, who also is Austin's wireless communication services manager, said that creating the P25 system in the Austin area cost about $100 million. For Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties, he said, the price tag might be $300 million.

Simpson said that some cities in North Texas already are switching to the P25 system.

But for other government entities, including Dallas County, coming up with the money may be difficult, especially with the economic downturn.

Dallas County Judge Jim Foster said that until the county upgrades its radio system, it will be years behind. "But in order to move forward, we're talking in the millions of dollars just to improve the existing communications," he said.

Foster said that is virtually impossible without some kind of help from the state or federal government, and efforts to obtain grant money have been disappointing. "We've looked and looked at it and just have not be able to find any," he said.

Last year, Dallas County commissioners voted to create a central dispatch center that would consolidate the dispatchers and equipment for the sheriff and the county's five constables, in part as a cost-saving measure, but also to improve communications capability. For now, at least, even those plans are on hold because of a financial shortfall - the kind confronting many communities because of the recession.

"Although we eventually want to get there ... the finances just won't allow us to build it right now," said Dallas County Administrator Darryl Martin.

Statewide, the cost for a P25 network could cost hundreds of millions. Simpson said that regional governments in the state have been asked to produce plans by Dec. 15 detailing their strategies for migrating toward P25. How to fund that, he said, will be part of the planning process.

Communities, he said, will need to draw on local, county, state and federal funding. No one source is sufficient, he said, "to make this happen."

Copyright 2009 Dallas Morning News

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