Report: Is West Virginia Radio System Set Up to Fail?

Reports say multi-million dollar system could fail during emergency situations.

So, on July 1, 2008, the Charleston Fire Department switched over to the digital radios. The only other agency that had been solely using this system in Kanawha County up until this point was the Charleston Police Department Traffic Division.

"The benefits of the new radios far outweighed the risk," said Erwin.

Erwin says he and the fire department were aware of the issues, but they conducted their own tests of the radios in a high-noise environment -- and found that there was little difference between analog and digital.

Assistant Charleston Fire Chief Steve McClure says converting to digital has been a 5-6 year process -- and all of the department's concerns were addressed during testing. However, he said they're able to switch back to the old system in a matter of minutes, if necessary.

"We're still on a learning curve," said McClure.

The radios actually work better for building penetration, according to Erwin. He said that while the analog radios had no coverage inside the Diamond Building on Capitol Street, the new radios work everywhere inside the building except in a metal elevator shaft. Similar coverage differences are seen in the state capitol complex, too, according to Erwin.

McClure also says the benefits of the new system far outweigh the cons, but he understands the concerns of others.

"Anything new is going to be met with resistance," said McClure.

The other alleged problem with the radios is the "out of range" indicator.

Erwin says he has a workaround for Kanawha County that will ensure that emergency crews will be able to communicate with each other while at the scene of an incident. He is in the process of applying for low power licenses through the FCC to add analog mobile-to-mobile channels to each radio. This means that once crews are at the scene, the radios will not need to communicate with the tower in order to transmit or receive radio signals. Communication to and from dispatchers will still be handled through the digital system, says Erwin.

He said he's applying for 10 frequencies to be shared between police, fire, and EMS, and expects it to be rolled out within six months. The cost of each license is $700.

Erwin, however, considers this a temporary measure until all of the bugs are worked out.

He estimates the county will be fully digital within 3-5 years.

Local Firefighter Concerns

A 23-year veteran of the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department, Tom Miller, says the digital trunked system that the state of West Virginia is rolling out was never designed for everyday use.

"It was designed for inter-agency communication during federal emergency levels three, four, or five," said Miller. "I have a problem switching over to a system not made for day-to-day operations."

Miller says there are too many unknowns and red flags raised about the digital radio system to be proceeding with further implementation.

When informed about the county's plan to use analog channels as a solution to one of the problems, he admitted it would help, but insisted that a workaround was just covering up a problem with the radios.

"I don't want to find out it doesn't work while on an emergency," said Miller.

Miller says he counts five firefighter deaths in the United States linked to digital radio problems.

"Do we want the sixth to be in Kanawha County?" said Miller. "I am greatly concerned for the safety of firefighters and emergency personnel in Kanawha County."

Why Digital is Inevitable

Erwin says two things have contributed to the start of a digital statewide radio system: 9/11 and FCC bandwidth allocations.

For 9/11, he says firefighters and police officers in New York were not able to talk to each other on the radios when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. The new system will allow any agency anywhere in the state to communicate with any other agency anywhere else in the state.

Erwin says the FCC is mandating that radio signals take up less bandwidth, or space, by the year 2013. While analog signals are able to transmit at the new restriction, he says any other further constriction is not possible with analog -- but is possible with digital.

WV's Interoperable Radio System