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updated: 3/9/2011 11:14 PM

Radio woes trigger safety concerns in Naperville, Aurora

Naperville, Aurora responders say system is faulty

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Problems with a new radio system continue to plague emergency response teams in Naperville and Aurora and may be putting police and firefighters in jeopardy.

The Naperville firefighters union this week filed a "safety concern" with the city complaining that the Harris OpenSky radio system in use since Dec. 1 is falling dangerously short of expectations.

Naperville Professional Firefighters union President Dan Smith said members are concerned about coverage issues, transmission interference and garbled communications that have occurred at critical moments.

Some examples:

• "Keying up" a radio, or attempting to communicate over it, has activated lights and sirens in police cars, including undercover vehicles.

• Keying up a radio in a Naperville electric utility substation inadvertently activated a switch and temporarily cut power to 1,200 customers.

• Naperville firefighters lost all communication with crews inside Naperville Central High School during a small fire on Feb. 28.

"The latest issue with the high school pretty much sent us over the edge because we had crews operating inside that we lost contact with," Smith said.

Naperville Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis said he received the union's safety concern and is aware of technical issues with the radios that cause reception problems in some areas.

Although other groups haven't filed official concerns, Vince Clark, president of Naperville's patrol officers union, said his co-workers see continued radio glitches as "safety-related issues."

"The public safety radios are one of the most important tools we rely on and our confidence in them has expired," Clark said.

Dave Schmidt, president of Aurora's patrol officers union, said radios now function better than they did immediately after being installed, but the system is far from perfect.

"A lot of the problem areas have gotten better, but sometimes, for whatever reason, during peak hours when everyone's using their cell phones, it's knocking the radios out," Schmidt said. "We're still having problems because sometimes people sound like they're underwater."

The cities switched to OpenSky, a digital radio network, because their analog systems were outdated and difficult to maintain, officials said.

Aurora spent about $14 million on its radio system, including an $11 million contract with Florida-based Harris Corp., which manufactured the radios and set up the system, Chief Technology Officer Ted Beck said. Naperville's contract with Harris totals about $10 million.

The two systems are interoperable, meaning Aurora's can function with Naperville's and vice-versa.

Technology directors in both cities say they continue to work with Harris to find the cause of problems with coverage, audio levels and inaudible communications.

"Part of it seems to be interference from sources outside of our system," said Dan Voiland, Naperville's communications director. "We're looking to find out where the interference is coming from."

When a radio on a digital network such as OpenSky experiences interference, that unit essentially stops functioning and becomes unable to send or receive messages, Voiland said. Cell phones or radio amplifiers in warehouses that operate on similar frequencies to the ones used by OpenSky could be causing some of the interference, he said.

Aurora's Beck said dealing with interference is part of the ongoing maintenance of any radio system, so the problems may never disappear completely.

A statement from Harris presents another possibility for addressing interference issues: hiring a consultant.

"The cities have also informed Harris that they have hired an independent firm to determine the source(s) and full scope of the problem and how to address it," Victoria Dillon, communications director for Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications, said in the statement.

But Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger said there are no plans at this point to hire such a consulting firm.

Beck said Aurora is evaluating services that could be performed by California-based SATCOM, a satellite and wireless technology consulting firm recommended by Harris. If a consultant is hired, the cities will do so jointly using funds already provided in the contracts with Harris, he said.

"If we end up having to hire the consultant, part of that scope of work is to put software and test equipment in place permanently so we can address this concern moving forward," Beck said. "We would certainly be looking for them to find current sources of interference and depending on what those sources are, the method of enforcement and remediation can be quite different."

For example, if cell phone carriers are interfering with radio signals, the Federal Communications Commission likely will step in, Beck said. But if an amplifier inside a warehouse causes interference, asking the business owner to check if the equipment is malfunctioning could solve the problem.

Aside from the interference issue, some radio glitches have been solved -- in Naperville, at least, Voiland said. Beck and other Aurora officials say they are making progress on their list of problems as well.

Lights and sirens in 40 Naperville police vehicles no longer come on when a radio is used inside the car after the city repaired control boxes for the visual and audible signals the first week of March, Voiland said.

Future power outages will be avoided by advising electric workers not to communicate via radio within power substations and having the manufacturer of the power grid's safety switches ensure the devices have proper shields to prevent them from flipping because of radio communications.

But Naperville Fire Chief Puknaitis said radio transmission inside buildings may never reach 100 percent -- making the union's concerns about the lack of communication inside Naperville Central more challenging to solve.

"The problem that we have with this is we need to have 100 percent radio communications and it's unacceptable for us or anyone to have a radio system that's 95 percent effective," Puknaitis said.

With the OpenSky system in use for slightly more than three months, Smith of the Naperville firefighters union said he hopes the safety concern his organization filed will bring about faster improvements.

"We're hoping it'll put a little bit of pressure on Harris themselves to work a little more diligently in fixing this problem," Smith said. "I know they're working, but we're not seeing the changes as fast as we'd like."

In the meantime, both cities have withheld some payments from Harris and will not pay the full contract amount until they are fully satisfied with how the radios are functioning. Aurora has paid Harris about $8 million so far and is waiting to pay the remaining $3 million of the contract price upon final approval of the system, Beck said.

"We're a little bit happy that it's getting better," Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas said. "We're not satisfied that it should have been better than this sooner than this."