New Jersey county's dispatch system getting upgrade

Technicians from Motorola install the new 700 megahertz 911 radio system in a Voorhees Police Department cruiser.
Technicians from Motorola install the new 700 megahertz 911 radio system in a Voorhees Police Department cruiser. (TOM GRALISH /Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 19, 2013

The 911 calls poured in.

Giocondo "Joe" Navek, a disgruntled former Virtua medical resident, had fired several shots through the driver's-side window of Payman Houshmandpour's silver Audi as the victim pulled out of a parking spot at his Voorhees apartment complex in April.

Houshmandpour, also a Virtua resident, died at the scene; Navek sped off in a Nissan.

At the Camden County communications center in Lindenwold, a dispatcher gave the description of the suspect and the Nissan and the vehicle's direction to Voorhees police.

That dispatcher then called across the room to colleagues dispatching backup police from Lindenwold, Berlin, and Gibbsboro, giving them details of the case. Another dispatcher called Cherry Hill police by phone to give them updates.

What seemed like chaos has long been the center's usual way of handling police response across the county.

That began to change this month.

A new, more powerful radio system is being phased in - beginning with Voorhees - that will enable all police, fire, and emergency medical services in the county to talk to one another.

"That's true interoperability," said James Jankowski, county public safety department's chief of communications. "It's not a sound bite."

The term gained national attention after the chaotic emergency response to the 9/11 attacks, when emergency personnel at the World Trade Center couldn't communicate with one another.

The system being installed in Camden County will operate in the 700 and 800 megahertz spectrums, higher frequencies than the current radio system is on.

Using multiple antenna sites linked by a state-of-the-art microwave network, the system will have more channels, meaning public safety agencies won't have to compete for radio space.

New portable radios will enable police officers and fire and medical personnel to communicate with the county communications center from anywhere in the county - even from inside buildings - and minimize the number of dead spots.

Gone also will be the digital transmission interference from television stations - like the 26-hour intrusion two weeks ago from a Waterbury, Conn., television station that silenced handheld police radios in Camden County and forced the county to switch to its limited backup system, which has fewer channels.

In 2012, there were 48 such incidents, over 70 days, of digital television interference affecting police, said Rick Connor, technical services manager for the county department of public safety.

He said the interference from digital television stations increased exponentially in 2009, when stations converted from analog to digital. The local police spectrum is disrupted because it coincides with that for digital TV.

Fortunately, the interference from WTXX in Waterbury didn't hobble the response to any emergencies.

"A police officer could be on a car stop; the officer could be in a building with an armed suspect and [the radio] just goes dead. That's why it's so dangerous," said Robin J. Blaker, director of the county's Department of Public Safety and Juvenile Justice.

The new system, which costs between $35 million and $40 million, will be paid for with federal stimulus money, state grants, and capital funds.

Two weeks ago, Voorhees' police force became the first department in the county to migrate to the new system.

An additional 31 police departments are expected to begin using the system this year, and two more next year. A planned new county-run police force also is to come aboard in 2014.

All fire and emergency medical services across the county could begin using the system as early as next month, officials said.

"It's doing everything they promised it would do," Voorhees Deputy Chief William Donnelly said.

Other South Jersey counties also are looking to upgrade their radio frequencies.

The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing Burlington County's application to move from the 500 megahertz spectrum to 700 megahertz, county officials said.

In Gloucester County, where a committee is exploring a similar move, emergency response coordinator Tom Butts said he was prepared to recommend the county convert to a 700 megahertz spectrum.

"It's a clear spectrum," he said.

The FCC has set aside a portion of the 700 megahertz spectrum solely for public safety agencies, Connor said.

Twenty-four years ago, when Jankowski, a former exterminator, started as a dispatcher, he would write out emergency calls on index cards - blue for medical calls; red for fire calls; another color for police - and time-stamp the cards when a call was received and help dispatched.

The cards would be stacked up in the dispatch center at the end of the day. The 911 system was introduced in 1993.

Jankowski cannot wait for the latest improvements to be completed.

"It was a like a two-lane highway in the desert," he said of departments' competing for radio space. "If that car's on it, you can't pass it. You have to wait your opportunity."

Blaker said the more efficient system would enable ambulances and police officers to respond to calls quicker.

"We're in the right century now," he said.


Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829, dsimon@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

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