Berkeley County launches new communications system

May 14, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER


Police scanners have been flying off the shelves at Radio Shack in Martinsburg Mall since Tuesday, store manager John Day said.

"Every other phone call is about scanners since Tuesday," Day said.

Tuesday was the day Berkeley County public safety officials made the switch to a new communications system that will band together all City of Martinsburg, Berkeley County and county-based state emergency service personnel, as well as other public employees, such as building inspectors, animal control officers and other public employees.

In making the switch, Berkeley County became the first county in West Virginia outside the area around Clarksburg, Morgantown and Fairmont to adopt a fledgling statewide digital radio system that ultimately could connect emergency responders from one side of the state to the other, Central Dispatch Director Mary Kackley said.


The new high-frequency digital system, which cost $2.5 million, includes new hand-held radios, mobile units for county vehicles and pagers.

The radios, which allow for direct communications between responders from different agencies through a special tactical channel, are tied into a fixed satellite tower atop North Mountain that is connected to the state's primary equipment in Harrison County.

Funding for the county's system was provided through a 911 fee increase approved by the County Commission in 2004.

Though much work went into preparing for the changeover project, the system went online Tuesday at 3 a.m., Kackley said.

"We switched over at 3 a.m., and we received our first call for dispatch at 3:02," she said.

That call was for a domestic alarm.

Using the new system, which originally had been scheduled to go online at the end of last year, has been a learning process for dispatchers, who also are completing a move into a newly renovated dispatch center, complete with new operating equipment, Kackley said.

"The dispatchers are under tremendous pressure getting comfortable and confident on all the new systems at the same time," she said. "As in any large project, you have to implement, you need outstanding cooperation through all the agencies and, for the most part, we've had that."

The changeover requires the purchase of new radio scanners in order to pick up transmissions from the new radios, and Day said his store stocks two kinds - a mobile unit and a hand-held portable scanner. Day said he has received calls from customers who suddenly were surprised to discover they weren't picking up radio transmissions.

A media relations representative at Radio Shack's corporate offices indicated the store was not able to release information about how many scanners had been sold this week, but Day said the numbers are much higher than usual.

"It's been a huge increase in sales for us," he said.

The new system, which promises to improve coverage throughout the county, also boasts the highest level of operability, according to ratings produced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That will give county officials a better chance to receive federal funding through that agency, Kackley said.

Installation of mobile units for police and fire and rescue vehicles began this week, and other government agencies will be receiving their radios next week.

Gary Collis, program manager for the Berkeley County Ambulance Authority, said his office ordered 22 extra radios through a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant for the county's fleet of ambulances.

"We want to put two radios in every unit," Collis said.

Kackley said responders in the field already are reporting improved reception.

"Responders are saying they are hearing us better than they were on their mobile units under the old system, which has five times greater power than a hand-held has," Kackley said.

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