The county’s digital public safety radio network has experienced numerous problems over the past nine months, but most problems have been fixed and the few remaining are being addressed, multiple public safety officials said.
The Newton County Board of Commissioners held a special public meeting Tuesday to hear from E911 Director Mike Smith and Tyco Electronics representatives, the company that installed the OpenSky radio system. Smith and Tyco Site Manager Ryan Currie updated the board on the system’s progression.
District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing requested the meeting because he was concerned about the past and current problems. He said he feels responsible for the safety of public safety officials because his son is a firefighter and he is the only current commissioner who originally voted for the system. Ewing said he was still concerned with the issue of radio "dead spots." He said this was the first time he had heard anyone beside the actual public safety users say there were problems.
Smith said Tyco was fulfilling its contractual obligation of having handheld portable radio coverage in 90 percent of county-designated buildings, including schools and county buildings. He said the number of dead spots under the new digital radio system has been reduced and the vehicular tactical repeaters, portable radio range boosters referred to as V-TACs, can be transported to an area to eliminate the dead spots that do exist. He said one of the main reasons the county chose the OpenSky system was because of the V-TAC technology.
Tyco Site Manager Ryan Currie admitted there have been problems and dead spots, but he said the coverage area is up to 96 percent of the buildings designated by the county. Smith said compared to the county’s old analog system, the new system is 99 percent better.
Currie gave a presentation that included a list of issues the system has had since coming online in August. The issues included hardware problems with the actual radios, various software and code problems and other problems including the need for different types of antennas.
One of the biggest past and current problems is interference coming from a cell phone tower in the Turner Lake area. Currie said the tower, which is used by multiple cell phone carriers, is affecting a half mile area in the Covington Police Department’s jurisdiction.
"It’s not unusual to have interference from cell phone towers and not unusual for interference to go both ways; frequencies are a scarce resource," Currie said. "The system still works in those areas, but the signal is degraded. We’re talking to cell carriers, trying to find a solution. One carrier will see if it’s them and should have the equipment in by next week."
Currie said the old system had the same problem, but people worked around it.
CPD Chief Stacey Cotton said that in order to eliminate virtually all of the dead spots, the city would have had to buy a $10 to $12 million system, not a $4.5 million system. He said that the SPLOST money was limited to $4.5 million and that the county got a great system for the money, but that dead spots are inevitable. He also said that towers weren’t able to be built out in the county, so antennas had to be placed on exiting structures, like water towers. This also affects the effectiveness of the system. Also, some particularly low spots in the county could never be reached by most towers.
Cotton said that the new system was complex because of the state-of-the-art technology and that it takes time work out the bugs and get used to the new technology.
"Tyco has been working hard to address the problems and pretty much everything is squared away," he said. "I think they’ve been very responsive; more responsive than any vendor I’ve ever dealt with … also, (some of us in public safety) we have to learn to change some of our habits."
Newton County Fire Chief Mike Satterfield said the system is much better today than it was when it was first installed. He said the V-TACs have helped and were used in two recent incidents at Factory Shoals. Satterfield said better planning might have helped Tyco avoid some of the problems, but he said they have been very responsive.
Currie assured Ewing and the other commissioners that he would stay in Newton County until all of the problems were solved. Currie lives in West Virginia and travels to Newton County every week, staying here from Monday through Thursday to work with local officials to solve problems.
"This is a work in progress; when you build a house, you have to meet with the contractor to go over the punch list to get taken care of. I just went over my punch list," Currie said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I’m committed to staying in constant contact with the users until everything is finished. I meet monthly with public safety users and I’m meeting weekly with the Covington Police Department (because of interference in Covington caused by a cell phone tower). I will leave when Mike Smith has a smile on his face."
Tyco Regional Sales Director David Plezbert said Tyco was committed to getting the system to optimal conditions, because Tyco wants to use Newton County as a showcase for the rest of the region.