Arlington seeks to convert its radio system to digital

Posted Wednesday, May. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Arlington needs an estimated $14 million to convert its outdated public safety radio system to digital by January 2015 as required by state and federal mandate, Fire Chief Don Crowson told City Council members Tuesday.

Switching to a digital system would allow agencies from different cities and counties to communicate with one another without interruption when responding to disasters such as tornadoes, fires and terrorist attacks.

“If we learned anything in the post-9-11 universe, we have to have the ability to talk to one another,” Crowson said. “A digital system is the only way to do that.”

Many North Texas cities, including Fort Worth, Dallas, Frisco and Mansfield, are converting the systems as mandated, he said.

Arlington’s analog system, used by police, fire, public works and other city departments, is 28 years old, and parts for it are no longer made.

The city has not identified funding for the project, which includes the cost of three radio towers, servers and radios for nearly 400 vehicles. Thanks to public safety grants received during Super Bowl XLV, Crowson said, the city upgraded about 90 percent of its hand-held radios to ones that can be used on a digital system.

Finding funding

Council members said there isn’t a choice about making the upgrade, just a question about finding the funding.

“It is important that our level of communication is as progressive as possible. We must keep up with the advances of technology,” District 3 Councilman Robert Rivera said. “The lives of our first responders and citizens demand this advanced public safety.”

Arlington’s current system is functioning but faces several challenges, Crowson said.

One of the biggest concerns is that the city will not have a backup radio system when Fort Worth shuts down its analog system in December 2014.

While Arlington’s radio system does not have a history of failing, Crowson said, a backup is crucial because “a storm could take our radio system down.”

If that happens, Arlington could not communicate with most agencies in the area, he said.

“That leaves us with no backup and a sense of urgency to replace our analog system,” Crowson said.

The switch is possible in 14 to 18 months if funding is identified, he said.

Sensitive conversations

With a digital system, sensitive communication could be encrypted, Crowson said.

“Most of our radio channels can be heard at any time by anyone, which can put public safety personnel at risk. They can be tracked,” he said.

Other agencies, including the University of Texas at Arlington police, the Mansfield school district police, Pantego and Tarrant County College Southeast Campus, pay to use Arlington’s radio system.

“We absolutely have to do it,” Mayor Robert Cluck said. “The city manager and we have to decide the best way to pay for it.”

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock

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