After four years of turmoil and occasional delays, the Mobile County Communication District’s first emergency radio network is currently supporting nearly a dozen public safety agencies, and so far, the early reviews of the $36 million system have been kind.
Upon completion in early 2018, that P25 Phase II radio system will carry radio communications between first responders and dispatchers from 43 agencies in the county, but MCCD Director Charlie McNichol recently told Lagniappe several early tests have already proven successful.
“Overall the system is performing very well, and we anticipate we’ll continue to get good results as we move through this rolling cut-over,” McNichol said. “Our first responders throughout the county are going to realize much better coverage, clarity and reliability with this new system.”
That “rolling cut-over” is the actual transition of radios from the existing radio system — a 1980s Enhanced Digital Access Communications System [EDACS] owned by Mobile County — to the new system MCCD has been paying Harris Corporation to build out since 2013.
While MCCD board members are appointed by the Mobile County Commission, it is a completely separate entity that gets its funding through monthly fees collected by landline and cellular phone service providers. The P25 is the first radio system MCCD has owned outright.
Instead of switching all at once, though, police departments in Chickasaw, Bayou La Batre and Mobile have been gradually making the transition as portable and mobile radios used in those agencies have been reprogrammed for compatibility with the new system.
Those agencies and others have since reported clearer communications and improved coverage throughout their respective jurisdictions including in rural areas and inside large buildings that frequently produced “dead zones” or signal disruption on the old network.
Capt. Roy Hodge, the communications section commander for the Mobile Police Department, said the department’s first precinct has been on the P25 system since early October. Since then, most of MPD’s 1,176 mobile and portable radios have been made the jump to the new network, where, according to Hodge, they’ve been operating without issue.
As one of the last agencies to migrate to the county’s old EDACS system, MPD had “significant coverage issues” when it joined the network in 2013. Though some adjustments have been made in the interim, Hodge said EDACS has still “left a lot to be desired” for police in Mobile.
“In-building penetration was terrible and we’re talking about inside the mall or a Wal-Mart — places we respond to every day,” Hodge said. “Somewhere else no one thinks about are the Wallace and Bankhead tunnels. What happens when you drive through the tunnel? Well, the same thing happened to us. Think about the amount of calls we have inside those tunnels.”
Since the transition, though, Hodge says the difference is incredible. Officers can now communicate with the system at the deepest points of those tunnels, and while testing the limits of the system, Hodge said radios even worked through the steel walls of the U.S.S. Alabama.
The MPD’s first precinct is the department’s largest and the area’s busiest, which is why it was selected to “load test” the new system. Hodge said from Oct. 5 to Nov. 14, there were a more than 291,191 push to talk radio commands recorded in the first precinct’s talk group.
“That’s a total 1,006,197 seconds of talk time. That’s 279.49 hours or 11.64 days of continuous talking,” Hodge said. “That would be like me picking up a radio talking for 11 and a half days straight, all without one single reported failure. It’s been pretty impressive.”
Hodge’s praise is not an anomaly, though. Mobile’s Public Safety Director Jim Barber, Chickasaw Police Chief Chris McLean and Bayou La Batre top cop Cliff Adams all echoed comments about the P25 system’s reliability, improved coverage, and clear reception.
While original price of the P25 system exceeded $39.4 million, that figure was reduced after criticism of MCCD’s initial agreement with Harris sparked an internal investigation of the project that led to lengthy delays and an eventual contract renegotiation.
To date, Harris Corporation has been paid more than $34.7 million, and a final payment of $841,750 is due upon MCCD’s acceptance of the new system. MCCD has also paid more than $684,000 to TUSA Consulting for its role managing the project since 2014.
Those prices might seem steep, but standing in one of the 11 radio tower sites that power the P25 system, it’s easy to see what some of those dollars went into.
Each site is incredibly complex, with multiple layers of redundancy built into nearly every component.
Built-in diesel generators can power those sites for days, but all 11 also come equipped separate battery systems that can detect and mitigate any loss of power within milliseconds to give those generators time to come online during an outage.
Every component of the system is also designed to withstand physical and digital threats. The towers can withstand hurricane force winds, and every one of the thousands of radios and computers connected to the system is protected with military grade encryption.
The P25 system also has some additional features that weren’t available on EDACS like the ability to reprogram radios remotely and a companion app developed by Harris that allows administrators to send and receive communications on the radio system using a smartphone.
There’s also a “stealth” option that can kill the lights and sounds of any portable radio instantly.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a police officer that’s in a dark warehouse searching for a burglar,” Hodge said. “Every time somebody keys up their radio, it’s lighting up like a little beacon letting the bad guy know where you’re at. That’s why we programmed in a stealth mode.”
The new system could potentially save money down the road, too, because — unlike EDACS — true P25 Phase II networks can support radios made by any manufacturer. That means Harris and its local dealer will no longer be the only place local agencies can turn to when they need to buy radios or have them programmed.
Foster told Lagniappe that interoperability in the P25 system could “foster an incredible amount of competition” that could drive the price of those services down in the future.
According to McNichol, the new system is currently on schedule to be fully operational around February, and despite the tumultuous path the project has taken, Tusa Consulting, Harris and MCCD’s staff and board members appear to be on the same page moving forward.
“We can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel now,” McNichol said. “Maybe it’s because we’ve gone through so much to get here, but it feels like we’re on a better track now that we have been at any time in my involvement with this project.”