A couple of weeks ago, Scioto County Sheriff’s deputy Paul Bloomfield was out in the field attempting to communicate with the communication center at the Scioto County Sheriff’s Office.
“I couldn’t hear him, a lot of static,” 911 dispatcher April Pierson said. “The next day, he was at the same location and I heard him clear as a bell, no static, just like we are talking in this room.”
What was the difference that occurred overnight? The installation of the new $225,000 MARCS radio system. MARCS stands for “Multi-Agency Radio Communication System.”
“We had one of our people in Cincinnati picking up an inmate and it was crystal clear,” Scioto County Sheriff Marty V. Donini said. “They can talk car-to-car from one end of the county to the other where previously they couldn’t.”
If you have always taken it for granted that law enforcement officers can communicate with each other easily by radio, you have been laboring under a a mistaken assumption.
“It was a shot in the dark whether or not they were going to be heard,” Donini said. “It just wasn’t working.”
Not a problem now with the MARCS system. So what does the capability mean in the day and age of the active shooter situation?
“This has just really increased the communication capabilities of our office,” Deputy Andy Drake said. “If I need to get a hold of another deputy, I know I can key that mike up and I can mark that unit and they’re going to answer me. If I mark Dispatch, they’re going to hear me. The way the system is set up, I key it up, I know it’s transmitting. Our old system, you could key it up and talk and you may not hear anything. You don’t know if anything transmitted. This system really does work and it makes a difference how we feel on the street.”
Donini added that all area schools also have a MARCS radio and Drake said when the school keys the switch they can talk to the sheriff’s office directly immediately.
The new communication system has been an absolute game changer.
“It (going to MARCS) has re-energized them (deputies) because they feel like now they’re confident that somebody’s going to hear them on the other end if something happens,” Donini said. “I think it has increased the psychological safety factor for the guy on the road. Now they don’t have to worry about not being heard or located. At least now he is going to be heard and we’re going to know where to send the back-up.”
Where did the problem start?
In January 2013 the federal government made it a requirement that anyone who used radio communication on a regular basis, go through a process called “narrowbanding.”
“That means they’re going to take half of it from you,” Donini said. “Now you only transmit on half the band.”
Donini said Scioto County paid almost $90,000 to comply with that ruling because not all of the department’s radio were able to be narrowbanded.
“We had to invest the money. We did it in 2012,” Donini said. “We did it before the deadline, plus we had to worry about fire departments and EMS on our side because we dispatch for them. So we had to make sure that all of our systems in here were compliant with the narrowbanding and we had to make sure all the fire departments were online. We narrowbanded one side and left the other as it was and we notified all the fire departments and told them they had a certain date in which they had to comply because we were switching them over.”
When the narrowbanding occurred, the department lost half of all of its radio service.
“Since 2013 we’ve actually relocated some of our (9) towers and I put a new antenna on WNXT’s tower,” Donini said.
Donini thought that would resolve the problem, but it didn’t.
“After hearing complaints and concerns I made the decision that we’ve got to go MARCS,” Donini said.
How does a department suddenly come up with nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars?
“We kind of pooled our funding resources,” he said. “At the end of the year, whatever I did have left over, I pooled it toward that, along with some non-general funds, part of which was the rotary account, which all these township deputies work, and they all had to have new MARCS radios. So, we were justifiable by using part of that and then we used part of our federally-forfeited seizure accounts that we recovered from people who had been charged federally for crimes.”
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.