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On the air: New digital radio system

A network of 14 towers -- 12 situated in Washington County and one each in Hudson and Somerset, Wis. -- comprises Washington County's 800-megahertz public safety radio system that's now functioning. Staff graphic by Neil West

With the flip of a switch this week, public safety radio communication has gone digital across Washington County.

On Monday, March 2 the county sheriff's office officially debuted the new $15 million 800-megahertz radio system it has been planning for more than a decade.

The new system will allow police and fire departments within the county to communicate much more smoothly and with better efficiency, said Dean Tilley, the radio systems manager for the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

"A citizen outwardly won't notice the difference," Tilley said, "but the responders will definitely notice a difference in the improved radio coverage, which will improve response times."

Washington County is one of the last Twin Cities metro area counties to transfer public safety radio communications from analog to digital.

The county paid for the installation of the infrastructure, which included construction of 14 new towers across the county and installation of a mainframe at the county government center.

Each city will pay for its own equipment, installation and an annual fee to subsidize the operation and maintenance of the system, Tilley said.

Although the system is now online, many municipal police and fire departments in the county, like the Woodbury Public Safety Department, issued their police officers and fire fighters portable and mobile radios to ensure redundancy while any kinks are being worked out, said Woodbury assistant fire chief Mike Richardson.

"The process will take a couple weeks to complete, but our officers and fire fighters are excited about the switch over to the new system," said Richardson, the 800-megahertz trainer for Woodbury Public Safety.

Last month the county sheriff's office held a seminar to train lead officials from departments across the county on how to operate in the new digital radio system. Richardson then spent several hours training his own Woodbury Public Safety staff how to use the new system. He said police officers who often are indoors will notice a difference in the new system.

In the old analog, or VHF (very high frequency) system, "dead spots" are common indoors, especially in basements, Richardson said. In the new digital system, "there should be few buildings that we can't get a signal out of," he said.

Outdoor coverage will improve as well, because of the 14 tower sites that are scattered throughout the county, compared to the two towers the county used to operate previously, Tilley said.

The multiple towers will also prevent the system from crashing if one tower goes out.

The county began installing the new towers in 2006, with the last one being erected in Afton earlier this year, after several delays in the city's approval process to build the tower.

The delay pushed the original goal to debut the 800-megahertz radio system from summer 2008 to Monday.

From channels to 'talk groups'

The new digital radio system operates different from the VHF system, because it uses "talk groups" instead of continued communication on a limited of channels, Richardson said.

The talk groups are run through the county's 911 call center and allow municipal public safety to better communication with departments in other counties and state patrol, regardless of distance.

Use of the talk groups will also allow municipal departments to communicate with MnDOT and Metro Mobility vehicles, he said.

Difficulties for ambulance chasers

Although the new 800-megahertz radio system will be a major improvement for public safety officials, civilians who make a hobby out of listening to police "chatter" will see increased difficulties with the new system, Richardson said.

Because of the 350-plus talk groups available in the new system, it will be tougher for residents to track conversations between two or more officers, dispatchers and fire fighters, Richardson said.

"It's not impossible, but the way the talk groups function, you may only be hearing a piece of a conversation," Richardson said.

The upgrade in equipment is expensive as well.

A VHF police scanner cost between $100-$200, whereas a digital scanner with 800-megahertz capability can cost anywhere from $600 to $1,000.