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Public safety radio makeover will improve communication between municipalities

Digital upgrade has several benefits for emergency personnel

Nov. 21, 2012

The radios used by emergency personnel will be upgraded from analog to digital as part of a Waukesha County Communications initiative, providing clearer and more seamless communication between municipalities.

Known as Project 25, the initiative will see communities replacing analog hand-held and mobile radios that have been in use since 2000.

Chris Petterson, radio services administrator for the county, said the new radios will be tough enough to last in the dangerous environments emergency workers face daily.

"They are extremely tough and reliable mission-critical equipment, and meet many military specifications for ruggedness and environmental conditions," Petterson said. "We have had hand-held radios that have been run over, submerged in a lake, dropped from an aerial ladder, and thrown in fights - and have been returned to service."

The upgrade also will expand the options personnel from different municipalities have to communicate with one another, improving communication between departments in crisis situations.

Petterson said the upgrade will bring advances to radio talk groups, which allows users to share a single common radio system with nearly unlimited channels. Petterson said there can be multiple talk groups. For example, a police department could have a main dispatch talk group or several tactical talk groups.

"Each of the talk groups covers the entire county - a Menomonee Falls police officer could, as an example, be on his or her hand-held radio in Eagle and talk to the dispatcher with perfect clarity," he said. "That opens up huge possibilities: paramedics can converse with the emergency room from inside a patient's residence miles from the hospital, personnel at an accident can coordinate directly with Flight for Life and police pursuits can travel from one end of the county to the other with seamless communications to every police officer and dispatcher in the county."

Waukesha and Milwaukee counties are working on establishing a dual-county system that would link personnel from both counties.

"Mutual aid events, tactical situations and potentially even things like transit coordination or highway maintenance could involve communications that is unhampered by political boundaries. Best of all, there will be substantial cost savings to the taxpayer (vs. operating two single-county systems)," Petterson said.

The public can still access live scanner feeds once the new equipment becomes available. Petterson said the implementation process will begin in 2013 and is expected to take up to a year to complete.

Several Waukesha County municipalities have included the cost of the upgrade in their budget planning.

Sandy Kulik, finance manager for the city of Brookfield, said the city budgeted $750,000 for the upgrade, including infrastructure, in its capital improvement plan for 2015.

Elm Grove has budgeted $275,000 for the upgrade during the past five years, said Monica Hughes, finance director.

The town of Brookfield reports it has been paying in installments to the county for a $45,000 fee for the infrastructure needed for the upgrade.

Chris Perket, town police chief, said the total upgrade costs above and beyond infrastructure will be $200,000.

"Our radio system is 12 years old," Perket said. "It's pretty old. It's a Motorola system and they don't make parts for them anymore."

Petterson said while the upgrades are not inexpensive, they are a valuable tool for those who rely on them most.

"These radios represent the lifeline between police officers, firefighters and paramedics, dispatchers, hospitals and municipal workers," he said. "They can and do save lives and property on a daily basis, so most government officials recognize them as a necessity."

- Rick Romano contributed to this article.

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