Columbia County sheriff’s deputies now have a new tool on their belt – a high-powered radio.
The county commission approved a nearly $7 million upgrade to the sheriff’s office radio system in May. Distribution of the radios and training began Wednesday.
“This is 10 years in the making,” Sheriff Clay Whittle said. “This is huge.”
The Phase II trunked Time Division Multiple Access radio system is digital, not VHF like the former system.
The VHF system provided coverage for about 70 percent of the county. The new system is guaranteed to cover at least 98 percent.
“No matter where they are, with this portable radio, they’ve got coverage,” Whittle said.
After a couple weeks of testing, Whittle said, he had a signal two miles into Burke County and can’t find an area in Columbia County without coverage.
He said the increased coverage will eliminate deputies’ need to hold their radio in the air, standing like the Statue of Liberty, to get a signal.
“It’s like going from a tin can and string to a real radio,” Whittle said.
The sheriff said he had been trying to replace the three-channel VHF system for about a decade, but the $12 million price tag was a deterrent. An opportunity presented itself when the county won a $13.5 million federal stimulus grant in 2010 to build a broadband network, which the new radio system uses.
The original broadband network plan included five communications towers. Whittle said he offered the county 1-cent sales tax revenue set aside for emergency radio equipment to build two more, ensuring excellent countywide coverage.
The reduced $7 million cost accounts for the radio price coming down and the existing broadband network infrastructure.
The new system includes access to the network, radios for more than 350 sheriff’s office employees, consoles for 911 system dispatchers and other necessary equipment.
The system includes sufficient channels for about 1,800 users. All county employees, including Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue workers and county departments such as Roads and Bridges and Water Utility, would use about half of that, Whittle said.
That interconnectivity, allowing departments to easily communicate and be able to function on different channels, will come in handy at events or incidents involving several agencies.
The new system is private and secure, said Spiro Papadopoulos, the owner of Augusta Communications, which provided the radios. Traditional police scanners will not be able to pick up the signal. Only authorized radios can pick up the law enforcement channels, he said.
New safety features come with the radios, including GPS locators, radio identification specific to each deputy and an emergency button. Whittle said a deputy can hit the button and automatically alert dispatchers, allowing them to send help and open the deputy’s microphone without the deputy’s having to do or say anything more.
“Everything you need to do, you can do with the radio you have in your hand,” said Pat Irby, a Motorola radio instructor teaching about half of the sheriff’s office employees Wednesday.
County Administrator Scott Johnson said all county departments will eventually switch to the same system.
Martinez-Columbia spokesman Jeremy Wallen said the department will switch to the new radio system when funding is available. Whittle said Motorola and the sheriff’s office are testing the system from 960 points in the county.
“We’re riding every road in the county (checking the signal),” Whittle said. “At the same time deputies are literally keying the radios up saying, ‘Can you hear me now?’ ”
The new system is expected to be operational and the VHF frequencies abandoned by the end of the month.