WETHERSFIELD - Wethersfield Police Chief James Cetran remembers the time one of his officers was pursuing an armed robbery suspects and lost contact with the station.
A Wethersfield High School student had had his iPod taken from him at knifepoint by two suspects on bicycles, and the officer had spotted them in a group of 12 others. He went to call for backup, but the $3.5 million Motorola public safety communication system failed him.
“I might have lost an officer,” Cetran told councilors at a special infrastructure committee meeting in Town Manager Jeff Bridges’ office last Wednesday, June 26. “Knowing him, if those suspects had started moving, he would have gone after them.”
They didn’t, and eventually the radio kicked in. Back up arrived and the suspects were arrested.
“Everything worked out alright,” Cetran said. “But that radio system was down for four minutes. That’s the most critical time.”
That happened last October and it wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, it’s been far worse at times, Cetran said.
“We once had the radio system out for 45 minutes,” he said.
Police and Fire Department personnel have been dealing with hindered communications since the town purchased the system in 2002. Service cuts out in parts of town and town officials have noted that there was a wide discrepancy between the scope of coverage reliability promised to the town in its contract with Motorola and the quality of what has actually played out. Wethersfield is currently in the midst of a lawsuit with the company.
Not only that, but the faulty equipment that was purchased is now obsolete--an industry shift prompted manufacturers to halt production of it. The town and its partner, Trott Communications Group, a consulting firm that advises clients on public safety communications, knew that it was time to retool.
“This is an opportunity and an obligation to do this right this time,” Bridges said.
The primary issue, according to Trott Communications Consultant Keith Woodstock, is a malfunction of the main trucking controller, or, as he refers to it, the “brain” of the system.
“This is the device that’s at the end of life, so that puts you in a problematic situation,” Woodstock told the committee at last Wednesday’s meeting. “Your system can’t run without it. The only thing to do in the short term was continue working with Motorola and keep the current system running. There is no good short term; short term is keep it alive and take care of the long term. The only long term is replacing the system.”
The committee thinks it may have found a good candidate for that. At its July 23 Council meeting, a motion will be made to vote on enlisting Harris Communications and a $3.5 million system that promises fail-safe features and inclement weather reliability. A two-brain system will prevent hindered communications in the event of a malfunction, and the package includes new radios for police and fire vehicles, two high availability switches, and transmitters at three sites, amongst other features.
“Besides replacement of the system, we wanted to make it better,” Woodstock said. “This was not just take out what we have and replace it.”
Compared to other companies supplying similar equipment, Harris’s price was considered competitive, Woodstock said. Case in point: Motorola would have charged between $1 million and $1.5 million more for a P25 Phase 1 controller, and that’s not including the maintenance costs, according to Assistant Town Manager Rae Ann Palmer.
One of the other manufacturers that was discussed was Tate, which only recently began producing a similar piece of equipment. Previous devices by the company ran communications on a single channel, Woodstock said.
“To my knowledge, there has not been a Tate trucking system deployed anywhere around the country yet,” he said. “The risk is, you would be a beta or alpha customer for them.”