Failing Radio System is Increasing Problem for Sandy Springs Police
Sandy Springs Police Chief Terry Sult is the coordinator among North Fulton chiefs working to improve the fragile radio infrastructure that allows first responders from various jurisdictions to communicate with each other during an emergency.
Monday’s suspicious looking case at Ridgeview Charter turned out to be a non-issue, but it is likely the type of threat that gives Sandy Springs Police Chief Terry Sult pause given the department’s failing radio communications system.
Sult is the coordinator among North Fulton chiefs working to improve the radio infrastructure that allows first responders from various jurisdictions to communicate during an emergency. For instance, on Monday, in addition to Sandy Springs Police and Fire Rescue, Cobb County Police and bomb technicians, and the K-9 Unit from the Fulton County Sheriff's Office were at Ridgeview. Patch is unaware of any radio communication failures on that day.
“We have agreements. If anybody calls us for assistance we will respond and help them,” said Sult, recently. “We all cooperate with each other, but if we can’t talk to each other, that really hurts our ability to coordinate resources.”
And while the City of Atlanta, Dekalb and Cobb Counties have upgraded their internal radio systems, Fulton has not. As a result, the 20-year-old radio communications system sometimes breaks down when officers try to talk to each other, or communicate with Chatcomm.
“You call 911 and talk to them, they push a button and talk to us over a radio infrastructure. [Without] that radio infrastructure, you can call Chatcomm and talk to them, but they can’t talk to us. How are you going to get help,” Sult said.
Chatcomm supervisor Stephanie Moody agrees it’s a frustrating problem and believes Fulton County being on analog instead of a digital system plays a role.
“It’s a problem. Depending on what area of town the officers are in we can’t hear them at all,” she said. “Often it’s heavy static or hard to understand them. Or the feedback is really bad and we’re having to make them repeat several times.”
Looking at Solutions
To improve the radio infrastructure overall, North Fulton cities are considering building a new system on their own or partnering with the Urban Areas Security Initiative, a federally funded program created after 9/11 to secure major urban areas from terrorist acts.
“...Because voice communications was a critical piece that failed,” said Sult.
Under, the UASI, North Fulton cities would subcontract with Fulton County and collectively pay $800,000 to $1 million to maintain the radio system, said the Sandy Springs Police Chief. Neither Fulton County nor the cities would have control over the system.
Sult estimates the cost of building out the current system to be $5-$10 million. If you compare that to the cost of maintaining the system through a partnership with the UASI, there will eventually be a breakeven point, he added.
A shared partnership with either the UASI or neighboring cities could be ideal if it is effective and efficient, the Chief said. A build out of the system could take 12-18 months. “There are some cities that could switch over in a couple of weeks,” Sult said.
During his time as Gastonia, North Carolina Police Chief, Sult oversaw enhancements to the Gaston County radio system, which had similar problems to what is experienced in Sandy Springs.
Police Officer Safety is a Concern
Both Sult and Moody, at Chatcomm, worry about police officers working with poor radio communications. “I do not want to be the Chief that is sitting here and have an officer killed in the line of duty because of poor radio communications,” Sult said.
He recalled the 1990s, when an officer was killed in the line of duty because of poor radio communications while he was a sergeant with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. At the time, the department was transitioning its radio system. The in-car radio was on one system and the hand-held radio was on another, Sult said.
“We had been instructed how the emergency button [on the hand-held] worked. We were told you hit the button and it puts you on a priority status,” he said.
After responding to a domestic disturbance call, the officer arrested a man and put him in the back of the police car, unaware that a gun had been missed in the search of the man.
The officer was shot from behind as he was driving down the road.
“He doesn’t know where he’s shot from. He runs off the road; hits another vehicle; and exits the car,” Sult said. “He gets in a position of relative safety at the rear of the vehicle, hits the emergency button on his radio – calls out for help – does not get a response, but hears the in-car radio calling for him…”
The shooter had exited the car. The officer was shot again as he tried to return to the vehicle to get on the in-car radio.
“From that point I started looking very closely at how these systems work,” Sult said. “The radio system goes to the core of what we do.”