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updated: 7/21/2011 1:40 AM

Lake County first responders working toward better communication

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  • Wauconda Fire Department Chief Dave Dato, right, and Jeff Giacinto, command unit leader, explains the equipment in the Unified Command Post, an emergency mobile communications van, housed at the Volo fire substation.

       Wauconda Fire Department Chief Dave Dato, right, and Jeff Giacinto, command unit leader, explains the equipment in the Unified Command Post, an emergency mobile communications van, housed at the Volo fire substation.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • The Unified Command Post, an emergency mobile communications van, is operated by the Wauconda Fire Department and housed at the Volo fire substation.

       The Unified Command Post, an emergency mobile communications van, is operated by the Wauconda Fire Department and housed at the Volo fire substation.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Wauconda Fire Department command unit leader Jeff Giacinto talks about the printer, fax, and copier as he explains the equipment in the Unified Command Post, an emergency mobile communications van housed at the Volo fire substation.

       Wauconda Fire Department command unit leader Jeff Giacinto talks about the printer, fax, and copier as he explains the equipment in the Unified Command Post, an emergency mobile communications van housed at the Volo fire substation.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 

One of the first lessons learned from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was that emergency service personnel must have integrated technology.

Hundreds of police officers and firefighters died when the twin towers collapsed -- not because they had not been told to evacuate, but because they never heard the warning.

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Various agencies using different radios with incompatible frequencies left first responders without a crucial link to those outside the burning buildings making overall assessments of the dangers.

The tragedy led to myriad discussions, plans and mandates across the country designed to bring all those who respond to danger to a place where when one person speaks and all who need to can listen.

Police, fire and public works agencies in Lake County started their march toward increasing collective safety more than three years ago and report tangible progress is being made.

In an age when there are several ways for people to communicate, first responders are seeking to use the entire electronic spectrum -- including radios, telephones and cameras -- to improve safety conditions.

Wayne Hunter, chief of administration for the Lake County sheriff's office, said that while the disaster of Sept. 11 focused wide attention on the need for better communication, the problem was well known to anyone with a badge.

"Any patrol officer who has ever gotten backup on a traffic stop from an officer from another agency knew that it was crazy our radios can't always talk to each other," Hunter said. "Unfortunately, we had to bury hundreds of our own before we got serious about doing something about it."

Hunter led the charge in 2007, when while serving as director of Homeland Security for the sheriff's office he secured a $1.2 million federal grant for radio upgrades.

That money was invested in 238 Apco P25 Standard hand-held radio units that can communicate across all frequency bands and establish instant connections with any other radios used by any other agency.

That allowed officials to place the regular radios displaced by the new models into a radio "cache" that can be moved in short order to the scene of a large-scale event and provide short-term universal coverage.

In the event of a disaster that draws numerous agencies to a scene, the cache radios will be passed out to those responding to unify communications.

Around the same time, the Interoperable Communications Council of Lake County was created, a group that counts nearly 130 emergency service agencies as members and has monthly meetings to work on bringing everyone under the same tent.

The council created a pocket-size communications guide listing all the radios and all the frequencies used by all the agencies in the county, allowing those with adjustable radios to make quick changes as conditions demand.

The council is chaired by Jeff Lilly, former Kildeer police chief and a current employee of a national firm that addresses communication compatibility issues.

Lilly said that while equipment is a large part of the solution, even the highest-tech gadgets are of limited use to those without a plan.

"One of the things the council works hardest on is coming up with training programs for scenarios where multiple agencies will need universal communication," he said. "Communication leaders will train for a variety of situations in which a command staff will need to direct a wide range of responders."

The common enemy in the struggle to improve communication is funding, says Wauconda Fire Chief David Dato, who is co-chairman of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force.

Dato said agencies throughout the county are applying for grants, searching for dollars available locally and trying to taper solutions that reflect the money that can be brought to the table.

"Everyone wants to resolve this issue, but at the same time is aware that funds are limited," he said. "We work with the specific issues each agency faces; sometimes a simple software fix in a radio system can replace the thousands of dollars needed for a full conversion of a base station and all the radios that work from it."

Dato's department also has one of 13 mobile command posts issued throughout the state that includes, among other features, a base station radio and compatible portable units that can be issued on need.

He said the unit is frequently deployed to police roadside safety checks and other situations where multiple agencies come together on a single project.

And, as important as having all the ears tuned in during times of stress, there is no such thing as having too many eyes looking out for potential problems.

To that end, the Lake County Division of Transportation is working with police agencies on technology that will allow the cameras for the Passage traffic control system to be temporarily deputized.

John Sauter, principal traffic operations technician for DOT, said his agency has already joined with several area police departments in creating computer software that allow police to take control of the traffic monitoring cameras at many intersections in time of need.

"Gurnee, Vernon Hills and the sheriff's office already have the capability to take our cameras and point them at a traffic stop or other situation their officers are involved in," Sauter said. "They notify us they need the camera, and then can direct it on a situation where their officer is and monitor that officer's safety until backup arrives."

Like most cases involving communication technology, there's also an app for that.

Hunter said his cellular smartphone is equipped with the Critical RF (for radio frequency) Direct application, which allows him to talk to sheriff's officers' radios from anywhere in the country.

Although only currently available for certain phones and certain radios, Hunter said it is the same application that allows the drivers for a Lake County cab company to be dispatched from an office in Denver, Colo.

Lilly said the Critical RF, at $299 for each phone as opposed to the $5,400 cost of an Apco P25, may be the future solution to the overall problem once it becomes more universally applicable.

"There is no doubt that the technology is evolving and converging," Lilly said. "The challenge is to keep up with the technology and make it fit the particular need, and I think Lake County is well ahead of the curve in that regard."

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