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Emergency responders say simulcasting, switch to digital improve coverage

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 using 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.”

The grant pays for:

--Simulcast over five radio paging and dispatch channels used in county, plus conversion to digital signal for LAW 1, the primary channel used by Pierce County’s law enforcement officers and emergency responders.

--Mutual Aid Box Alarm System software that can be used to deploy fire, rescue and emergency medical services in a multi-jurisdictional area.

--A block of 150 pagers to replace a third of the 450 pagers in use by EMS and fire responders in Pierce County.

“Digital radios allow officers to maintain a readable signal further into tough terrain conditions than analog radios,” said Lt. Mike Knoll of the sheriff’s department.

He 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.

Shafer agrees: “(Reception) seems to be clearer than ever.” He said that, with analog, voice messages were sometimes hard to understand in the fringe coverage areas, and responders were constantly asking dispatchers to repeat the message.

“As long as you have a digital signal, it’s going to be clear as a bell,” said Shafer.

The feedback from fire, emergency medical services and emergency management has been “uniformly positive,” said Knoll. But, he added, “The feedback from officers has been cautious, with some concern about the nature of digital audio.”

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.”

He added, “The decision to take the sheriff’s primary channel digital was a decision that was made quite a while ago, and I think it’s for the right reasons.”

As far as how the transition affects River Falls police, Sgt. Jon Aubart said: “It really has no effect on how we communicate with the county. We are still on the same system.

“The only real change is the Pierce County main channel is now digital. All our equipment is digital capable so we do not need to change anything. The simulcast part just gives better coverage over the county and uses both analog and digital signal.”

Officials have heard complaints from citizens who can’t listen in on the LAW 1 channel with their old analog scanners.

“Members of the community have already expressed their inability to monitor the sheriff’s radio frequency with scanners since transitioning to digital,” said Sheriff Hove. “We knew that this would be an obstacle, but felt it was the right time to make the move and to ensure public safety communications are the best we can get.”

She added digital scanners can be bought in many retail stores.

New digital police scanners typically retail for $400 to $500. Knoll said they can cost “several thousands of dollars,” depending upon the features included. Analog scanners cost $75 to $100 apiece.

“It is hard to say if citizens will or will not purchase digital-capable scanners,” said Knoll.

He doesn’t expect fewer people listening to radio traffic on their police scanners will have much impact on reports of crime or other tips. These days, most calls to the sheriff’s department for help or to provide information on incidents in progress come from cellphone callers and that won’t likely change, said Knoll.

The biggest benefactors of the ability to simulcast over the county’s radio paging and dispatch channels are the departments struggling with reception in hilly areas, said Shafer. That includes the areas of Spring Valley, Plum City and along the river.

Pagers are small devices and don’t have large antennas so transmitting to them is harder, said Shafer. With the old system, when county dispatchers paged for fire and emergency medical for Spring Valley or Elmwood, the signal transmitted off only one tower.

“Today with our new system, every tower in the county pages us, and that’s a total of six sites,” said Shafer. “It greatly enhanced our radio communications and overall radio performance.”

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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