Radio system to unite Valley law, fire units

Chris Fiscus
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Police and firefighters soon will be able to roam from one city to another across most of the Valley, talking to each other with ease.

That's not the way it is now.

Because departments have different systems and frequencies, it often takes numerous radios and numerous calls before a police officer in one community can talk to a firefighter in another when they are facing the same emergency.

Now, Phoenix and Mesa are close to creating a radio network that will allow different departments to talk without switching radios. It also will allow police and firefighters to talk to other city departments.

Police and firefighters say the nearly $150 million system will help revolutionize the way they communicate as well as save time and lives.

The effort, being watched by cities around the country, is a priority for Gov. Janet Napolitano and local homeland security experts. The system could be operating by late this year or early next year after a decade of planning and saving.

The chaos of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is one reason cited for pushing ahead with a new system, avoiding some of the communication blackouts that hampered rescue efforts in New York City that day.

"You see some officers carrying three and four and five radios in their car so they can talk to various jurisdictions," said Dennis Kavanaugh, Mesa's vice mayor. "You have these major events that don't respect political boundaries . . . It's a national problem."

Mesa police Officer Joe Noce remembers the floods in the 1980s, when he needed to reach a city employee. "I could look across the river bottom and I could see him, I could wave to him. But I couldn't talk to him."

He will be able to with the new system, which also will have better range. Right now, Mesa police officers cannot transmit out of the basement of the City Council building, for example. But when testing the new system from the basement, Noce chatted with a Phoenix police officer in the extreme northwest Valley and had a Gilbert Fire Department battalion chief on the line as well.

In another recent demonstration of the new network, Noce stood inside the passenger terminal at Williams Gateway Airport in the far southeast Valley and talked clearly with a Phoenix police sergeant who was in Anthem, in the extreme north Valley.

Mesa and Phoenix have worked on the concept, the 800 MHz system, since the early 1990s. Mesa plans to start phasing in the system by the end of the month. Phoenix police will start a pilot program in October and begin to convert to the new system early next year.

The network initially will cover fire departments in most of the Valley, plus police departments in Phoenix, Mesa and Gilbert.

Tucson and others are talking about hooking into the network, and a group of public safety officials from across the state, including the state Department of Public Safety, are looking into a compatible system for other areas.

"If you're in a rapid pursuit, you're not interested in fumbling with a radio, or who's on channel what," said Curt Knight, manager of the DPS' telecommunications bureau.

Supporters say increased security is another benefit of the improved system because transmissions are easily encrypted. That also took on added significance after Sept. 11.

The system, though, carries a whopping price tag.

Mesa is spending more than $12 million just for the new radios. Towers and transmitters for Mesa cost more than $16 million. Mesa used bonds to pay for towers and transmitters and budgeted for the radios. Phoenix is spending $120 million, half on infrastructure, half on radios and accessories, using bonds to raise the funds.

There are some potential technical hurdles.

In the Seattle area, authorities spent millions on a new system, only to discover that their radios wouldn't work when passing certain cellphone sites.

Once the system is running, local teams will look for interference, and will check to make sure the radios work inside major facilities, such as shopping malls, large buildings and hospitals.

Bob Kahn, an assistant Phoenix fire chief, says the system will save lives because time lost in emergencies means lives lost. He equates the radio system to freeways.

"The current one would be gridlock," he said.

"The new one would have enough lanes to accommodate all the traffic in the future. It's the autobahn of communications."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-7942.