Madison County

Madison's digital radio system getting attention around the world

James VanDeCar, a 911 telecommunicator, worked a control panel in Madison County's 911 Center in Richmond. Its $18 million digital radio system become operational in August, the first of its kind in the country.
James VanDeCar, a 911 telecommunicator, worked a control panel in Madison County's 911 Center in Richmond. Its $18 million digital radio system become operational in August, the first of its kind in the country. Greg Kocher | Staff

RICHMOND — Inquiries from domestic and foreign agencies continue to come in about Madison County's new $18 million digital radio system for public safety.

Curiosity is high because other agencies are exploring whether to buy something similar.

Representatives from Floyd County, Ga., and Cleveland visited Madison County last year to see the system and to ask questions about it, said Carl Richards, director of Madison County's Emergency Management Agency.

"Next month, I've got my first foreign visitor, and that's from Malaysia," Richards said.

He and his staff have fielded questions over the phone or via e-mail from NASA; the U.S. Air Force; Dane County, Wis.; and the fire department in London, Ontario.

Other communities have had so-called "P25" digital radio communications before Madison County. (P25 is the standard for digital two-way wireless communications used by public safety agencies in North America.) But when it became operational in August, the Madison County system, manufactured by Harris Corp., was the first in the country to have a particular series of radios, the first to use the software on which the system operated and the first to use a particular type of in-vehicle repeaters.

Until similar systems were implemented in Illinois and Iowa, Madison County was the only place in the country where the system was operational.

About 1,300 people in 30 agencies use the Madison County system, Richards said. They include police departments in Richmond and Berea, campus police at Eastern Kentucky University and Berea College, the Madison County Sheriff's Office, paid and volunteer fire departments, streets and road departments, three rescue squads, animal control officers, several utility districts and the jail. Madison County school bus drivers also are on the system.

The new system, largely paid for through a federal program for communities with stored chemical weapons such as those at Blue Grass Army Depot, replaced an aging analog system for which replacement parts were difficult to find.

As with any new technology, implementation of the system has not always been smooth and seamless.

"I would give it mixed reviews so far," Richmond Police Chief Larry Brock said. "There have been some bugs in the system that have had to be worked out, and that's caused some frustration on the officers' end of things. Slowly but surely, those have been worked out, and it's improving, but I would say we're certainly not where we expect to be yet."

For example, on occasions, "the dispatch center can't hear the officer or the officer can't hear the dispatch center," Brock said. And in situations in which an officer might want to turn down the volume to a minimum so he or she could still hear dispatch but not tip off a suspect during the search of a building, the officer might lose contact.

Richards acknowledged those problems but said they have been addressed through tweaks and training.

Capt. Ken Clark of Berea Police said the new system has its advantages.

"I think the mobile data terminals in our cruisers work better under the digital system," Clark said. And an officer can encrypt or scramble transmissions that are particularly sensitive, he said.

"Let's say we're going to do a drug raid or a high-risk warrant service where we don't want any rubberneckers around and we don't want anybody knowing where we're going," Clark said. "We can use those channels that help us on our security and safety for our first responders. That was an option we did not have."

In addition, under the old system, only Motorola radios could be used. The new system allows radios of various brands to work.

Richards said there are pros and cons in being the first with new technology.

"Everybody knows, if you think of a wagon train, you'd rather be the first wagon because you have a better view and it smells better," he said. "But the problem in being the first wagon is that you're the one who finds the deep hole in the creek. The wagon at the end, he gets through with no problem because everybody else has found the deep holes.

"It's been a learning curve. We're still trying to make it absolutely the best of the best. Any time you do a brand-new technology, there's always a learning curve."