10-4: Searching for a clear signal
The bluffs and valleys of Pierce County can make wireless communications difficult, a challenge the Sheriff’s Department and the county’s other emergency responders hope to overcome with a transition to a system that uses both analog and digital signal.
While feedback from firefighters and emergency medical services has been positive, deputies’ reactions to the new digital transmissions on the main frequency have been guarded.
Also, citizens who monitor radio traffic have been frustrated by their inability to monitor digital radio frequencies.
The Sheriff’s Department and the Fire Officers Association are completing the integration to a P25 Simulcast Radio System acquired through an Aid to Firefighters Grant, said Sheriff Nancy Hove.
The major cost of the transition will be paid through a $1 million Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant obtained by the Spring Valley Fire Department.
The grant is intended to improve public safety communication and paging for law, fire, ambulance and emergency management. Pierce County itself put up $200,000 toward the conversion.
“Our hopes were with simulcast we’d get better coverage, better reception and that was really the motivation behind this,” said Spring Valley Fire Chief Terry Shafer. He said the new simulcast system is especially beneficial in paging emergency responders.
The Spring Valley department applied for the grant several years before it got it. Said Shafer: “It was just to improve our radio coverage throughout the county.”
Said Lt. Mike Knoll of the Sheriff’s Department: “Digital radios allow officers to maintain a readable signal further into tough terrain conditions than analog radios.
Knoll said the county has been using seven rounds of grants through Wisconsin Emergency Management over a span of years and had already gotten mobile and portable radios capable of operating in digital mode and in a trunked environment.
“So minor reprogramming changes were all that was required to switch to digital operation,” said Knoll.
“The most basic (advantage of digital) is that digital radio performs better than analog radio in tough terrain like that found in and around Pierce County,” said Knoll.
Critics of digital say it is less reliable than analog in distinguishing between voice and background noise. For example, an officer’s voice may be unintelligible over the sound of a siren or a barking canine.
Shafer said he and his fellow firefighters haven’t run into any problems.
“All in all I think the performance is very good,” he said. “People are extremely happy.”
For the complete story, please see the Jan. 2 print edition of the River Falls Journal.