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In a couple weeks, Newton County's public safety communications will join the digital age as the long-awaited, multi-million dollar radio conversion project comes to fruition July 29.

 The county and all its first responder agencies - the Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center, Newton County Sheriff's Office, Newton County Fire Department, Covington Police Department, Covington Fire Department, the police and fire departments of the cities of Oxford and Porterdale, Emergency Medical Services and public works departments - will finally be on the same wavelength, so to speak.

 They'll be switching over from a collection of four of five different networks to a single digital, interoperable radio system, the M/A-COM OpenSky network that will allow them to speak directly with each other and even with systems outside the county, according to Mike Smith, director of the 911 center, who has overseen the project.

 "We are now far better prepared than most counties and agencies in the country that if we should have some type of disaster we can get everybody coordinated easily since we're on one radio system," Smith said.

 In the past, when one agency wanted to speak with another agency in the county, often they would have to relay communication through 911 dispatchers or fall back on more informal methods, such as cell phone communication.

 With the new system, agencies will not only be able to speak directly with each other, but will also be able to specify who can hear their communication, making the lines more secure and eliminating amateur scanners.

 The coverage area is far more extensive with the new system as well, said Smith, who estimated users should receive coverage in about 90 percent of the county, which was not the case with the previous systems. Certain key buildings, such as the Newton Medical Center, often presented problems for officers and responders' communication on the old systems.

 Another advantage of the new system is greater patient confidentiality, said John Osburn, director of the Newton Medical Center Emergency Medical Services. Though EMS technicians already take care not to communicate confidential patient information over the airwaves, the system would be much more secure since only specified and approved users would be able to hear the information.

 The system will also allow for increased efficiency of the dispatch center by cutting down on radio communication, Smith said.

"The good thing about Newton County and the city of Covington, we're ahead of the curve on this one," said CFD Capt. Rob Christopher, who predicted that other agencies and counties would probably eventually follow Newton County's example by getting on one system.

The project and new system, which cost more than $4.5 million, was initially scheduled to be complete around 2007, but was delayed when an alternate site needed to be found for the construction of the seventh radio tower.

Discussion of a new communications system began back in 2001 when the 911 center's Board of Governors, composed of city and county public safety heads, realized they had reached the limits of their current systems, said John Middleton, administrative officer for Newton County.

But September 11th and the findings of the 9/11 panel highlighted the crucial importance of interoperability of agency communication systems, said Smith.

The project began to move forward in earnest more than four years ago. Voters approved a 2005 SPLOST referendum for a 1 cent sales tax that funded this and many other capital projects, said county administrator John Middleton.

The center is in the midst of training trainers who'll go out to their respective agencies to insure over 400 end users are up to speed and able to use the system when it goes live officially the week of July 29.

The change-over will happen department by department over several days, said Smith.

"We don't just throw a big magic switch and everybody talks. It's a strategically planned migration," Smith said.

About 166 mobile units have already been installed in public safety vehicles, and about 300 "walkies" or portable radio units will be carried by public safety employees, according to Trudy Henry, operations manager at the 911 center.

Personnel testing out the units by driving out to remote areas or entering dense buildings that lacked coverage on the previous system have given it glowing reviews, reporting clear voice quality and extensive coverage, said Smith.

CFD Capt. Ken Malcolm agreed. "This is a turning point in our law enforcement communication technology," he said.