But as Officer Jackie Stovall and his partner, Officer Scott Winslett, raced behind the suspect, who had already shot at them, their radio couldn’t reach Oxford’s dispatchers to warn of their approach and ask for help, said Heflin police Chief A. J. Benefield.
“He had to use his cell phone to notify Oxford,” Benefield said.
Communication issues have plagued Cleburne County law enforcement agencies since June 2011, when the county complied with a Federal Communications Commission mandate to narrow-band their radio frequencies, said Michael Gore, an investigator with the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office.
“Communications was cut in half and that in theory is what it’s designed to do,” Gore said.
But since the change, much of the southern and northern parts of Cleburne County are dead spots where the radios can’t reach dispatch, he said. Officers can be 4 miles away from each other and unable to communicate, he added.
Within the city of Heflin’s borders, there are dead spots where officers can’t reach each other or dispatch, Benefield said.
“Our walkie-talkies, which we call our handhelds, they’re basically useless,” Benefield said.
But those problems may soon come to an end, Benefield said. The agencies are testing digital radio systems and the 800 megahertz radio systems used in Calhoun County to see if they can solve the problems, Benefield said. Heflin already has tested both, and they were a huge improvement, he said.
The county has searched for a solution to the radio problems for at least 18 months, said County Administrator Steve Swafford. At first, the officials thought the VHF analog system that county agencies have used for decades was just experiencing interference, Swafford said.
Eventually, Swafford said, the county found the interference was coming through the uplink, the signal from officers on the ground to the tower. To cut down on the interference the county reprogrammed the uplink frequency from its Borden Springs tower, which serves just the northern part of the county, to the Turkey Heaven tower, which serves the entire county. Then it moved the Turkey Heaven uplink frequency to the Oak Grove Mountain tower, Swafford said.
“That cut out all of the interference,” Swafford said.
But it didn’t cut out the coverage problem, he added.
David Butts, sales manager for McCord Communications, one of the companies vying for Cleburne County’s business, said that public safety organizations have been using the analog VHF, or very high frequency, system for decades and the frequencies became crowded. That created a shortage of space, which the FCC tried to solve by mandating narrow-banding, which essentially created more frequencies in the same amount of space, he said. However, it also created interference, Butts added.
Many public safety organizations are moving to 700 MHz or 800 MHz bandwidths – VHF analog is 150 to 170, Butts said. But at the same time, technology is changing.
“Just as cell phones migrated from analog to digital, just as TVs have migrated from analog to digital, so have radios,” Butts said.
The digital signal is much cleaner and crisper, he said.
Digital is the format the signal is delivered in, any bandwidth including 800 MHz can be delivered digitally, he said.
But it requires new equipment. The P-25 digital, a public safety system, which Talladega and Calhoun counties use, can cost about $3,000 per radio. In other digital systems the radios can run about $600 and higher, Butts said.
Swafford said he is working with Benefield, Ranburne police Chief Steve Tucker and Cleburne County Sheriff Joe Jacks on the specifications the departments would like to have in the new system. That could include upgrades such as GPS to find officers who aren’t responding on their radios. Once the specifications are worked up, Swafford said, the county can advertise for bids.
But of course, Gore said, budget is also an issue. The departments are trying to work together to cover the cost, but each one has its own budget to consider, they said.
Still, Benefield said, at the core of this discussion is officer safety and public safety.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.