Search for missing Aurora boy complicated by communication problems

 
 
Updated 6/3/2011 3:44 PM

Aurora police say they faced communication obstacles that may have complicated their recent search for a missing 6-year-old boy near Sterling, Rock Falls and Dixon.

The hunt for Timmothy Pitzen was hindered not by glitches with Aurora's 7-month-old Harris OpenSky radio system, but because channels designed to allow multiple agencies to communicate weren't available, Lt. Nick Coronado said Friday.

 

Coronado said law enforcement agencies almost always face communication challenges when operating outside their normal jurisdictions, as Aurora police were doing during the May 19 search for the boy who went missing May 13.

In this case, the search didn't uncover any evidence of the missing boy and so no obvious harm was done. But that didn't make dealing with the complications any easier or less frustrating.

The search brought 70 people from 10 law enforcement agencies to an area about 75 miles west of Aurora -- far outside usual radio range, Ted Beck, the city's chief technology officer, said.

Although organizers devised ways for each search group to communicate through a mobile command post, the fix didn't solve the lack of direct radio communication between Aurora officers and staff from other departments.

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"We certainly would have appreciated being able to communicate with all of the other agencies that were not the Aurora Police Department," Beck said.

The first idea for dealing with the challenges -- switching to a radio channel set aside by the Federal Communications Commission for public safety use -- failed, Beck said.

The FCC reserves some frequencies, called nationwide interoperability channels, so public safety agencies can communicate in areas outside their normal region, according to the commission's website. But the FCC does not require police or fire departments to provide the technology or infrastructure to make the channels usable, said Matt Nodine, chief of staff and legal adviser for the commission's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

Such channels were not available in the search area, Coronado said.

Beck said no one is blaming public safety agencies in Sterling, Rock Falls or Dixon because maintaining national interoperability channels can be costly.

"Local towers on their system don't have those frequencies because that's just extra equipment and extra expense," he said.

Aurora has the equipment to support the channels as part of its $14 million radio system contract with Harris Corp. of Florida, but that doesn't help officers involved in operations outside the city's boundaries.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When searchers determined communication on the national frequencies was impossible, authorities said, they moved to backup plans.

An officer from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was assigned to each search group because that department's radios functioned in the hilly and wooded terrain, Coronado said. A natural resources officer also was stationed in the mobile command post to receive messages from the field and relay them to organizers.

It was not an ideal situation, but Coronado said it worked. And so did the other backup plan -- establishing a mobile hub to provide a signal for Aurora radios within a one- to two-mile radius.

Search organizers brought Aurora's mobile command post, a recreational vehicle equipped with a repeater that strengthens radio signals, to the area to serve as the communications hub.

Beck said it functioned "quite well" but took time to set up because Coronado and another person on the scene had to remind officers how to communicate using the repeater and make sure each portable radio was programmed correctly.

"We were able to use that program pretty effectively," Beck said. "(Officers) were able to speak to one another as long as they were relatively close to each other."

But the search area was larger than the one- to two-mile radius created by the mobile repeater, Coronado said, making it less efficient than it could have been under different circumstances.

"We never got to narrow down the search to that small of an area," he said.

Investigators looking along the I-88 and I-39 corridors were unable to find any helpful evidence during the search, authorities said. They also could not pinpoint any spots where Timmothy may have been with his mother, Amy Fry-Pitzen, before she committed suicide May 14.

Another search may be in the works if samples of dirt and plants taken from Fry-Pitzen's vehicle point investigators to a specific area, authorities said.

And if another effort is planned far from Aurora's borders, Beck said the city will make adjustments in hopes of facilitating easier radio communication.

"We certainly have done our documentation in terms of how to change our training so officers are able to use the (mobile signal repeater system) more effectively, quicker," Beck said. "We also probably needed to roll the mobile command post sooner so that it was on scene faster."

Even with the experience officers garnered during the May search, police say they know radio communications outside Aurora likely will continue to be a challenge.

"It's always been a struggle," Coronado said. "Just the general area out there is difficult for any type of radio communication."

Beck said more time to coordinate with police departments in the area of a search would help. But with police work in general -- and missing persons cases in particular -- taking more time is not an option.

"If we were able to call up several days in advance and talk to chiefs and communications people, we'd have a much clearer idea of what resources they have on their towers and what way we should interoperate with each other," Beck said. "In typical police fashion, you're responding to a more immediate need."