MCSO: radio transition running smoothly

CONROE- It was a long day for Captain Peggy Frankhauser of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, who clocked in at 5 a.m. and stayed until 10 p.m. to oversee the county’s transition from an analog to a digital radio system. Just before the final shift arrived at 10 p.m., Frankhouser said the transition, which began with the 6 a.m. shift had been very smooth.

Frankhouser spearheaded the move from M/A-Com to Motorola. She said Lt. David Park was her “right hand” during the process which she compared to going from analog to digital television and said the advantages are countless, but foremost is the ability to communicate with surrounding agencies.

The need for interoperable communication was made clear to the Department of Homeland Security and opened the eyes of entities nationwide after 9/11 when word spread of the problems created by the inability of so many agencies to communicate. Since that time, federal, state and local agencies have worked to develop systems of communication such as the Regional Radio System that Montgomery County has now joined.

“It was a goal of the Sheriff’s to get the radio system for the county,” Frankhouser said.

The communication provided by the new system is invaluable not only in the event of a natural disaster or the unthinkable terrorist attack, but also during the all too common occurrence of multi-county pursuits, Frankhouser said.

Patrol Captain Ken Ariola pointed out that in the past, it was sometimes impossible to warn agencies in adjoining counties that spikes were laid on the freeway during a pursuit, which has on occasion caused other agency’s tires to be ruined.

“There will be glitches and it’s a learning process,” he said, “But from a working stand point, it’s a lot better.”

“When our SWAT team and another agency’s SWAT Team are working together, they’ll be able to communicate with one another.”

Ariola said in addition to the logistical positives of the switch, he also appreciated that the new radios were lighter in weight.

Many surrounding counties were already on the system. The giant leap from an analog radio system to the Motorola digital system will allow Montgomery County law enforcement to communicate with the majority of the agencies in the 13 county Houston-Galveston region, including Walker, Harris, Fort Bend and Galveston.

The Huntsville Police Department went online last January, joining the Walker County Sheriff’s Office which was already part of the system. With the addition of Montgomery County, constant communication between agencies will be possible along a considerable stretch of Interstate 45 when necessary.

The Motorola system opens communication with about 33,000 other users, Frankhouser said. The Regional Radio System is the largest state-of-the-art digital system in Texas.

The new system was costly, but fell short of the $12 million budget approved by commissioners. A Public Safety Interoperability Communications Grant will reimburse the county $1.5 million and some of the cost will be offset by a settlement with Nextel. The FCC fined the communications giant for interfering with public safety and forced it to re-band its radio frequencies, dropping them all 15 MHz.

MCSO officers received training, as did supervisors from other agencies. Along with the $800,000 in radios provided to other entities, instructional books and CD’s, as well as talk group templates were provided.
In one week, 300 radios were installed in the MCSO fleet. The task was completed ahead of schedule, with only a few struggles, which were quickly and successfully addressed.

“It was a team effort,” Frankhouser said. “Fleet operations shut down except for inspections and emergency repairs and (Patrol) Captain Ariola sent about seven deputies, corporals and sergeants to assist.”

A radio shop which will include a manager, three technicians and a clerk is under construction at the county’s old impound lot.

Despite an over 17 hours shift, at the end of the new Motorola system’s first day, Frankhouser was upbeat and enthusiastic, praising all involved – particularly those who made the actual transition happen in less than a week.

“I’m so proud of these guys,” Frankhouser said.

She is also excited about the addition of a new radio systems manager, Larry Lowry. He joins the team with a wealth of experience, having worked for Motorola and Consolidated Communications, with the added advantage of being very familiar with the region.

Frankhouser called every police chief and constable during the day on Wednesday to ask how the transition was going and deal with any issues that had arisen.

The biggest issue so far is the 135 talk groups, but even that is far from insurmountable, Frankhouser said.
“We even have the capability of programming over the air,” she said.

Frankhouser expects more entities to join the system, which already includes all of the county’s law enforcement agencies, state and federal agencies and Conroe and New Caney ISD Police.

She said representatives of Motorola and Regional Radio Systems said they had never seen a system this size and state-of-the-art up and running so smoothly.

Perhaps, police say, the only people not terribly pleased with the transition are those accustomed to monitoring the analog frequencies on their home scanners for entertainment or other reasons. On a positive note, that group also included some criminals monitoring police channels for obvious reasons.

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