Emergency responders ready for costly radio change

     Gone are the days of a lone dispatcher at the radio post talking to one, maybe two, police officers on duty in the county.
     Now, there can be up to 10 officers on duty at a time talking to two dispatch centers on radios that far exceed the technology ever imagined a few decades ago.
     But with that change has come a price, and with more upgrades planned — many mandated, but unfunded — an even loftier price is in the future.
     For years, police and firefighters used UHF frequencies, but in the near future, local police will switch to an 800 MHz system and fire departments will change to narrow-band VHF frequencies or 800 MHz.
     The Indiana State Police and several surrounding counties and cities are already on 800 MHz systems, and now Whitley County’s police departments are prepped for the costly changeover.
     “It makes sense for us to go to 800 MHz,” said Chad Fulkerson, town marshal of Churubusco, where the department frequently works with Noble and Allen counties, both of which are on 800 MHz systems.
     For Churubusco, the price could be about $20,000, although the town is still waiting on a second quote for the equipment.
     In that price will be four in-car and two handheld radios.
     The department already has four handheld radios from a grant through the Emergency Management Agency, a department which often applies for grants for new local radios.
     South Whitley also has handheld radios for its department, which came through an EMA grant, but still needs four in-car radios.
     Chief Dave Wilkinson said the department is still studying whether it should switch to 800 MHz radios or use a device which would allow the current radios to communicate with an 800 MHz system.
     As with Churubusco, South Whitley’s department would rely on the town’s general fund for such a large purchase.
     For Columbia City’s police department, which has many more cars and personnel than ’Busco, the price for the changeover will also be much more, but nothing has been solidified, according to city police chief Mike Petersen.
     The department has seven 800 MHz radios now, but needs many more to outfit the entire department.
     He sees the need for it though, not only for local plans to change, but for what’s occurred in other jurisdictions.
     “We’re almost an island because there are so many communities that have gone to 800 MHz,” he said.
     The police department, communications department and city fire department have a plan to share the financial burden for the changeover, which will occur over a period of several years.
     Included in the plan is equipment that can use the current system and 800 MHz, in case one system has problems.
     In the sheriff’s department’s dispatch center, the equipment is in place to make the switch, but it won’t occur until all departments are able to do so.
     “We want to try to do this as a county,” said Kathy Shively, communications director for the sheriff’s department.
     The sheriff’s department has many more cars in which to install new radios and then a much higher price.
     Nearly every car now has an 800 MHz radio in it, and all deputies have a handheld unit.
     Once the rest of the in-car units are installed, the department will make the changeover among its deputies.
     With an expected cost of $10,000 to $12,000 for the last few radios, the funding will first need to be found.
     As with other departments, the funding for the sheriff’s department’s existing radios also came from a grant secured by the EMA.
     “It would not have been possible out of my budget,” Whitley County Sheriff Mark Hodges said.
     Hodges feels the 800 MHz system has its advantages over the current system, including being able to monitor other counties and the state police, as well as communicate with them.