Iowa Chief Says Radio System Plagued with Trouble

May 12, 2013
The new systems, coupled with a switch to narrowband frequencies this year, resulted in radio complications across Des Moines County.

May 11--WEST BURLINGTON -- Nearly four months after the West Burlington Fire Department sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the city's public safety radio system remains unreliable, according to Fire Chief Mike Heim.

Faulty communications have been a persistent problem for the West Burlington Fire Department since Des Moines County public safety agencies modernized their equipment in 2010 and updated the shared radio infrastructure in 2012. The upgrades were paid for with grant funds provided by FEMA.

The new systems, coupled with a switch to narrowband frequencies this year, resulted in radio complications across Des Moines County, with West Burlington's fire department affected in particular.

Heim's department has experienced repeated incidents of on-scene radio failure during firefighting operations since last summer.

Fearful the faulty radios might someday lead to a firefighter getting hurt, division chief of training Paul Barnett, who spearheaded the effort to upgrade the county's radio systems about eight years ago, asked FEMA to intervene last December.

In its response, FEMA arranged for radio manufacturer Vertex Radios to run a series of diagnostic field tests on the fire department's handheld radios May 2. Heim said Vertex didn't just test its own radios, it tested the department's Kenwood and Motorola brand radios as well.

"They all failed," Heim said. "They failed horribly, and now they're going back to their engineers to find where the problem lies."

One of the tests included an attempt to communicate via the handheld radios at the General Electric plant in West Burlington.

"We figured that would be the worst-case scenario," Heim said. "If you can talk in GE, you can talk anywhere."

Heim said it was impossible to communicate over the handheld radios inside the plant.

Frustrated with the ongoing problem, Heim is confident it isn't a question of human error.

"(Vertex) eliminated anything that we could have done," Heim said. "If there's an issue, it's either software or the radios themselves. We don't know."

West Burlington's radios were supplied by Hiawatha-based Graybill Communications. Kevin Graybill was at the meeting with Vertex and the West Burlington fire department last Thursday.

Graybill doesn't think the issue is with his product, but with the infrastructure and the environment in which the radios are being used.

"The radios performed to spec," Graybill said. "There's no radio failure. The issues are the laws of physics and the areas they're trying to use them in. No radio works in the areas we tested."

The county's hilly topography, system modernization and switch to narrow-band frequencies has led to a variety of issues for area public safety agencies, among them decreased signal range and dropped transmissions in certain areas. Some department's have fared better than others, but Burlington Police Major Darren Grimshaw, director of the countywide communications center, said to a certain extent, West Burlington's radio issues are simply the nature of the beast.

"We've still got officers on the south end of town that can't communicate," Grimshaw said. "We knew when we narrow-banded, it was going to create issues."

Grimshaw said efforts are ongoing to correct some of the county's infrastructural radio issues, including the eventual installation of several new antenna sites for use by municipal fire and police departments. Grimshaw said he is working to install a new $10,000 antenna within the next two months to help alleviate some of the range issues being experienced by area law enforcement.

As for area fire departments, Grimshaw is skeptical further tests on handheld radios will do much in the way of solving the problem.

"How much money can you throw at the problem?" he said.

Copyright 2013 - The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa

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