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Communication system among emergency responders

posted Mar 30, 2015, 3:47 PM by Deirdre Daly

Loveland Reporter-Herald News, 03/28/2015 09:08:54 PM MDT

Loveland agencies consider move to new communications system

Some say it could affect regional compatibility

By Saja Hindi, Reporter-Herald Staff Writer

When Larimer County Sheriff's Office deputies went on a high-speed chase following a bank robber March 19, nearby troopers from the Colorado State Patrol were able to monitor and scan the deputies' radio channel and joined in the pursuit. But when the officers got to Wyoming, communication with Wyoming officers became a little more dicey — a patch that was supposed to connect radio traffic across different systems didn't work.

And that's exactly what could happen if a deal goes through that would remove the Loveland Police Department, Loveland Fire Rescue Authority and other agencies from the same system used by Larimer County to one used by Weld County and other agencies, according to Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith.

"It puts us in a bad way, because we did a lot of work over the last 10 or 15 years to join the statewide system. ... We put significant time and money into making these things happen," Smith said.

And in crises, whether natural disasters or emergency situations, every second counts, he said, so if there isn't seamless communication, it could be dangerous.

Kevin Klein, director of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said radio frequency compatibility is essential during crises, when agencies move beyond their normal areas and work together.

"The ability ... to all get on the same common platform so they can exchange information efficiently — that's what we're looking at for interoperable radio communications," Klein said.

The shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 were a big impetus for the state to assess its radio communications network, he said. And the state didn't want to deal with communications problems that occurred on 9/11 in New York, where police couldn't communicate with firefighters, Klein added.

The board of Northern Colorado Regional Communications Network, a 28-agency group, including most Loveland agencies but not Larimer County, has announced its decision to merge with the Front Range Communications Consortium — composed of Weld, Adams, Boulder and Broomfield counties. The Northern Colorado Regional Communications Network agencies are part of the state's Digital Trunked System.

"We believe moving to FRCC is the best direction for NCRCN and others along the Front Range as we experience unprecedented growth in Northern Colorado," said president Mary Moore of Fort Collins in an email. She refused to comment beyond a written statement.

The email stated Larimer County was also invited to move but officials there declined.

However, Commissioner Steve Johnson said if the county left its current system, it would lose its coverage with state agencies such as Colorado State Patrol and Division of Parks and Wildlife, as well as the U.S. Forest Service and National Guard. Leaving the state system is a move Larimer County officials say will be detrimental in emergency situations. Officials say they were not consulted about how the merger would affect communications between their agencies before making a decision.

"Interoperability suffers and people's lives are at risk," Johnson said.

Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said for now agencies can communicate through what are called mutual aid channels.

"We still have interoperability," she said.

Klein, however, said it isn't easy communicating in Weld and Adams counties, talking on different radio systems.

"That slows down communication. There's technology that will let you do some of those things, that will let you maintain interoperability," Klein said, but the Front Range Communications Consortium has refused to allow a direct connection to the state's system.

Moore's email stated that the Front Range Communications Consortium uses a gateway switch called ISSI to maintain operability with agencies on the state's system. The state of Colorado, the email read, bought the switch last year but has not yet activated it and will need to do so to maintain operability with the Front Range Communications Consortium.

Greg Gilbert, Loveland Fire Rescue Authority captain and board member of the Northern Colorado Regional Communications Network, said the state's system serves about 800 agencies in Colorado.

However, when Weld County agencies formed the Front Range Communications Consortium, the county's sites and towers became part of it, reducing the ability to communicate with those on the state's system — meaning agencies have to use mutual aid channels. But they have proven to be incompatible at times, which the ISSI gateway should improve, he said. Loveland agencies will still have the ability to adjust frequencies, depending on each agency's system, he added.

Gilbert said Loveland has faced problems being on the state system that include the ability to address maintenance upgrades in a timely manner and the dependence on lawmakers for funding.

But Johnson said if a local government wanted to own and operate its own equipment, state officials would have allowed for that and still kept its agencies on the system. Johnson called the upcoming move "irresponsible" and Weld County's formation of the Front Range Communications Consortium "unnecessary."

Larimer Sheriff Smith said the move would be a step back, and even with the ISSI, capacity will be limited. And calls will have to go through an agency's dispatch center, further delaying response time, he added.

"In a crisis, those things don't work like they're supposed to," Smith said, even if the agencies are trained.

Loveland Police Chief Luke Hecker said in major emergencies, it's typical to move radio communications off the primary frequency to a mutual aid channel.

"Operationally, I don't think it's going to be that different," Hecker said.

He said if Loveland agencies do move, the only difference would be that if an officer entered another jurisdiction and wanted to listen in on that agency's communications, he or she would have to switch to that frequency. But that would take the officer off his or her own agency's communications.

That, according to Johnson, is problematic. It will make communications in rural areas more difficult as well as make it harder for officers who are driving in another jurisdiction to show up and help those from another agency.

"The policy-makers have to decide, is it a good idea to split the emergency system in Northern Colorado within Larimer County?" Johnson said.

Commissioner Lew Gaiter said he has been trying to meet with elected officials to explain the situation better, adding that the discussion should be among people who are accountable to the voters.

"If NCRCN moves, it will create holes in Estes and the eastern side of the county," Gaiter said.

He said if the move and communications are supposed to be seamless, it doesn't make sense that the group wants to delay any implementation until after the Pro Cycle Challenge in August. But Moore's email stated it wasn't advisable to make such a move on "mission critical technology" before a major event.

City Manager Bill Cahill said Loveland hasn't made a final decision on whether it will join in the move, with questions about radio tower infrastructure, among others, that need to be addressed first..

While Klein said the technology is available for compatibility across the state systems, the real issue is business practices, rules and politics.

"If some jurisdictions want to have other features that cost more, as long as we can talk to each other, that's great," he said. "The thing we need to ensure is that we can talk together."

Saja Hindi: 970-669-5050 ext. 521, hindis@reporter-herald.com, twitter.com/SajaHindiRH.

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