Police department looks to upgrade radio system

SALEM — The police department is looking to upgrade to a digital radio system to provide better coverage and better communication between personnel.

To finance the system, the Finance Committee of city council took action earlier last week to recommend an appropriation from several police funds and the capital fund to cover the $54,430 price tag for new mobile radios, new portables and new base units. The proposal will need council approval, possibly at the next council meeting on Feb. 5.

Of the total being sought, $20,000 will come from the capital fund.

“The radios the police department uses don’t reach all the areas of the city,” Mayor John Berlin said during his presentation to the committee.

He explained that the FCC forced wideband channel systems to become narrowband channel systems effective Jan. 1, 2013, in effect cutting the power of the department’s analog radio system in half. In some parts of the city, which has grown in coverage size over the years, the analog radios don’t work as well. Berlin provided committee members with a report from Jason Hurford, who has maintained the police department’s radio system for years, and explained the need for the upgrade.

Hurford noted in the report that the city has spread wider geographically and city growth has also caused an increase in overall electrical interference, causing more noise and static to be heard on the analog system. He wrote that “when you look at the growth of the city over the years and figure in that we have been forced to cut back the signal by 50 percent, it’s easy to see what has happened and why the performance has degraded.”

He said that with the digital system chosen, not all of the current equipment has to be scrapped and can still be used in some cases, such as the repeaters and some of the mobiles in the vehicles which can be used with the new digital system. The police, fire, street department, utilities and parks department will be able to stay on the same frequency bands and talk to each other. The system chosen is also cheaper than other systems and doesn’t require recurring monthly airtime charges.

“Our police department feels this system will more than adequately protect the citizens,” Berlin said.

Councilman Geoff Goll questioned whether the police accounts being used to cover the cost were some of the accounts that had not been used and had been sitting there. City Auditor Betty Brothers said the funds in question could only be used for training or equipment.

Goll also questioned if this system allows the police department to talk directly to the sheriff’s office or the highway patrol. The mayor said those departments both use the MARCS system, which is more expensive and cost-prohibitive for the city due to an annual fee and the higher cost for the radios. He said the police department was not recommending that.

City Service/Safety Director Ken Kenst said there’s never been an issue with communication with the sheriff’s office or patrol. He also said the old radios will go to other departments in the city, such as the street department. The radios were last upgraded five or six years ago, just before the FCC issued its requirement.

Goll then questioned about the fire department, with Berlin saying they were working on a grant. The need was more urgent for the police department at this time.

Councilman Sal Salvino said it sounded like the police department had done its due diligence. Councilwoman Cyndi Baronzzi Dickey, who was in the audience, agreed, saying she would support the request. Both Goll and Salvino are on the Finance Committee which is chaired by Councilman Andrew Null.