Nebraska emergency radio woes drawing attention

Nebraska emergency radio woes drawing attention

By Paul Hammel March 26, 2013 5:30 pm Comments

 

 If you’re a state trooper, pinned down by gunfire, trapped inside of a building, and have no way to call for help on your radio, that’s a problem.

  A real big problem if you’re wounded and need medical assistance.

 And a big problem if you’re trying to help rescue a nearby hostage.

 That’s essentially what happened last June when state troopers and local deputies and police moved in to halt a hostage situation at an Alliance drug store in which the owner was taken hostage by a drug addict with an AK-47, who shot at everything that make a sound or moved.

 A cop got shot when he initially answered the call. A deputy and a trooper got shot later when the gunman heard sounds. The hostage got shot as he ran for freedom.

 Luckily, a couple of troopers pinned down in an adjacent building didn’t get shot, though they had to resort to using their personal cell phones in an attempt to find out what was going on. Unfortunately, cell phone batteries run out. They left them with no communications.

 Now, after a second and a third dangerous incident in which the state’s new $17.3 million didn’t work properly, state leaders are starting to pay keen attention.

  One of the latest incidents inspired the state troopers union to file a formal grievance. Their contract says they won’t be required to use unsafe equipment. And there’s a real fear out there that someone could get killed the next time the radio system doesn’t work.

 There’s a multitude of reasons the system fails at critical moments.

 It’s more complicated, and the pushing of one wrong button can block several people from talking. It’s new technology (ever got a new cell phone? These radios are much more complex) that takes some time to get used to. And it’s a different system than used by almost all local cops and deputies, so you can’t talk to them, unless there’s some work done to accomplish that.

 So the state has rightly ordered more training to eliminate user error.

 But there’s also some technical problems with the system, with signal “repeaters” in cruisers and the placement of antennas and radio consoles.

 Maybe the biggest technical problem is that each tower on the system can handle only three frequencies or “talk paths” at a time. So if NPPD is fixing a power pole, a trooper is checking the background of a speeder, and a dispatcher is relaying a message, guess what, if you have an emergency, you get a busy signal because all three channels are taken.

 There is an override “emergency” button to clear a channel, but during a recent hectic chase, a trooper failed to find that button as a murder suspect was firing at his car. A pretty understandable mistake during a stressful incident.

 While the state has three channels per tower, the 911 system in Douglas County has 20 channels. During a recent three-alarm fire in Omaha, three channels were dedicated alone to fighting the blaze.

 The trooper’s union, along with some state senators, are asking for more information to determine if the system lacks capacity and needs more frequencies. It appears to be a bigger problem in heavier traffic areas, like eastern Nebraska, and during an emergency situation, like a shootout or wildfire, involving multiple agencies.

 But Gov. Dave Heineman, who used to head the committee years ago that reviewed options to replace the state’s old, out-dated radio system, says it’s too early to seek more money for the radio system.

 More training, he said, should be pursued first. State officials are also pursuing equipment adjustments to improve signals. They say they’re willing to work on solutions.

 That’s a good sign, but troopers are hoping there’s some urgency, and action, in that pledge.

 After all, one said, who can predict when the state faces another emergency, another devastating tornado or monster blizzard. You need a radio system that works at times like that.

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