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Posted: August 12, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Open communication

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.org/

Once again, the makers of Newton County’s 911 radio system came before the Board of Commissioners, and once again they said the problems will be solved soon.

Two representatives from the Harris Corp., the company that purchased Tyco Electronics — the maker of the OpenSky 911 radio system, said they had fixed some of the radio system’s more serious problems and were close to fixing the rest.

Since the system was installed a year ago, police officers, firefighters and other emergency radio users have had problems with interference from cell phone towers, significant delays in repairing faulty radios and inconsistent performance of radios.

The system’s current frequency is near to the frequency of cell phone towers in Newton County, which has caused interference. Mike Smith, 911 Communications Director, said the county recently received permission from the Federal Communications Commission to change its system’s radio frequency, or reband its system, to a lower frequency, which will eliminate most of the interference.

Smith said that even with the rebanding one spot of the county will likely still have problems and, if the interference continues, another adjustment may have to be made. The rebanding would have taken place earlier, but Smith said the system is moving to a frequency previously devoted to analog TV signals, so the county had wait for the Digital TV transition. The rebanding should be finished by the end of this week, he said.

Another problem reported by radio users was the months-long delay in getting radios repaired. Harris Corp. representative Tom Fiesthumel said the delay was caused because each radio that was sent for repairs was also upgraded with the newest software. Harris Corp. expected the upgrades to take a few weeks, but instead they took several months. However, all of the radios have been upgraded and the repair process should be much quicker from now on, Fiesthumel said

Smith said the upgrades should also help fix some of the other smaller hardware problems, like the inconsistency. In addition, after the rebanding occurs, Harris Corp. and the county will start to map out any radio dead spots, so that emergency personnel will not experience any surprises and will know where to bring the mobile radio signal boosters.

Fiesthumel said the company is currently providing radio coverage in 90 percent of each individual building in 90 percent of the county, a very high rate of coverage, because if the coverage is that high indoors it will be even better outdoors. However, he said mapping out the 10 percent that is not being covered is important, in case that area is a high-traffic emergency area.

"If a dead spot is an area where officers are making 50 percent of their calls, operationally that is not good," Fiesthumel said.

Fiesthumel said all of the necessary testing and mapping of the newly rebanded system should be completed within two months. He said Harris Corp. is putting in extra effort, because the process would normally take four months.

One problem that has not been corrected is the signal distortion firefighters in full gear experience. District 1 Commissioner expressed concern about this, but Fiesthumel said the problem is an industry-wide problem, because the firefighters equipment distorts digital radio signals. Smith said that digital communications, including cell phones, don’t handle background noise well, which is a problem for a firefighter wearing a breathing apparatus and working in loud environments. Smith said Harris Corp. is one of leading companies in the industry in trying to find a solution.

Overall, Smith said he was satisfied with the company’s progress. Up until a few weeks ago, Smith said the company had not been making as much progress as he would have liked, but since a productive meeting with Harris Corp. two weeks ago, the pace has picked up and timelines have been set.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming asked if company representatives would stay in Covington to ensure the system worked in the future. Fiesthumel said while teams can’t remain forever, his company will continue to work with Newton County even after the two months of testing are finished.

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