10/29/11 — County officials explore ways to pinpoint problems with radio system

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County officials explore ways to pinpoint problems with radio system

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 29, 2011 11:28 PM

A September report on interference in Wayne County's new $10 million emergency communications system suggests that the ultimate solution would be to "clear a number" of the county's frequencies either by securing agreements from the people or agencies using the interfering frequencies to either move or to acquire different frequencies for use in the county.

The report, prepared by Florida-based Mission Critical Communications, also recommends that the county disable its most severely affected channels and operate on its remaining frequencies until the work to meet the federal mandate that emergency services "narrow band" their communications frequencies by Jan. 1, 2013, is completed.

Digital signals are not really weaker than analog signals. However, the FCC has mandated that the power wattage be limited to 50 watts per transmit station. That is the reason for the county's five tower sites instead of the one required for the old analog system.

Along with interference being caused by older and more-powerful analog systems in other communities, some of the problems are being generated locally -- possibly by private companies.

"What we have done is we put software on one of the channels to start trying to identify some of the interference that we are having," County Emergency Services Director Joe Gurley said.

That process will be repeated at the different county radio towers in hopes of determining the source.

Another possibility that has not been ruled out as contributing to the problem is that someone is using radio frequencies that are reserved for emergency units.

"If it is, we want to try to identify them and educate them on the possibilities that if they use the radio the impact that it could have on a first responder," Gurley said. "There is a very good possibility it could be localized private industry using it, too."

County Manager Lee Smith first mentioned the local interference at last week's county commission meeting.

"We have folks who are using our emergency frequencies," he said. "I will tell you this, and it is a warning, you cannot do that. It is a violation of the FCC. You cannot use an emergency channel for private use. If you do that, you will face fines and possible imprisonment. The FCC takes months to come and discover those. I don't have months to deal with that.

"We are listening and we are looking for the violators, and when we find them we are going to give them notice, but we are going to give it to the FCC. They have told us, 'If you can tell us who it is, we can act in hours.' So we are trying to step that up."

Smith also said it appears that some people are still using old analog fire channels.

"When they key those mikes, if they are close to one of our towers, it knocks out the radio," he said. "That is the way the system works. That is a serious issue when somebody does that they are endangering the lives of firefighters and police officers and EMS folks and ultimately themselves."

There also internal, or intermodulation, interference, Gurley said.

"It is like channel one, three and five hit at the same time, it causes a problem and it looks like interference, too," Gurley said. "It can also be caused by a bad connector, or where a connector is not fitted right. There are so many different scenarios out there."

While it has not been a problem in Wayne County, that has even included cars that generate radio frequency through devices such as a GPS, he said.

In one case early on, a fire truck siren caused the problem, but that has been corrected, Fire Marshal Bryan Taylor said.

"We have identified some cars that if you have a portable radio and you are three or five feet away from the vehicle you are fine," Gurley said. "You get inside the vehicle, you cannot transmit from that portable because the (radio frequency) is killing it. If you get within three feet of the vehicle, you can't because it is emitting so much RF it is killing that signal."

Gurley said Frank Flowers, longtime owner of Southern Communications, has agreed to help his office with the communications project.

"We wanted to bring somebody in who would give us a fresh look and wouldn't be biased either way and take the emotions out of it and give us an honest look," Gurley said. "He has been a silver lining so far."

Also, while the testing continues, Smith said Com-munications International, the company building the system, still owns it, not the county.

"We have not accepted the system because we know there are some issues out there," Smith said.

Anyone who is experiencing problems with the system should call Taylor, Smith said.

"We have some now who say there is no need to call," he said. "Yes, there is, because if I don't know you are having a problem I am assuming that you are fine. So without it I don't know it."