VIRGINIA BEACH -- E-mails among public safety personnel in Virginia Beach outline major concerns over the city's new digital radio system.
The cutover from analog to digital occured in late September, and immediately there were significant glitches that lead some officials to question the safety of police, EMS, and fire personnel.
13News obtained the e-mails under a Freedom of Information Act request to the city in November. In the e-mails, officials raise concerns about missed transmissions and an inability to communicate. The system upgrade primarily affects the portable radios carried by first responders when they're on a call. It's their way of talking to other units while at a scene or communicating with dispatchers in the 911 center.
On October 9th, police lieutenant Bob Christman wrote, "I do have significant officer safety concern with some things that are currently being missed on the radio, or the dispatcher having to work at identifying a unit on occasion when it is not clear who has transmitted information."
An October 11th e-mail addresses frustration over a talk-over feature that allows two police units to talk to the dispatcher at the same time.
Radio systems engineer John Walker wrote, "Our testing shows the talk-over feature does not perform the same with the digital system as the analog system. With the analog system, audio was somewhat understandable, with the digital system, the audio is not understandable and leads the dispatcher to believe a call has been missed when it was a case of two units transmitting at the same time."
On October 7th, fire battalion chief Stephen Lesinki wrote, "The fire department's primary concern is the missed radio messages in relationship to a firefighter May Day scenario. This obviously creates a grave situation for the member and creates an equal liability to the leadership of the fire department.. The bottom line is the fire department leadership is not satisfied with the situation.."
The e-mails outline the frenzy to figure out the root cause behind the radio glitches. At one point, analog to digital patches were being used to merge the old with the new, but later it was determined to be a problem.
Dan Constantineau in the city's communications and information technology department wrote, "While the aforementioned patches may provide some value, we've found that they are creating problems. Some of the descriptions of lost or garbled transmissions are likely attributable to the patches."
A finger of blame was also pointed at the system's firmware as being the problem, but the director of communication and IT, Gwen Cowart, says after troubleshooting with Motorola, it was determined that the radios needed to be retuned. And that process is underway for nearly 3,000 police, EMS and fire radios. Cowart says at no time was public safety personnel not able to communicate with each other or to the 911 center. But Fire Communications chief, Kenny Pravetz, says radio transmissions have been lost.
"Did some messages get missed? Yes. Some got missed. Did we have any injuries or accidents directly related to a missed communication? No, I can't identify one," says Pravetz.
So far, he says the fire department has retuned all of its radio and installed voice encoders to cut down on background noise on a fire scene. He confirms that public safety leadership has expressed frustration over the system, but the city was working aggressively to fix the problem.
Fire chief Stephen Cover says public safety was never compromised.
"I can assure you this, we are always concerned about the safety of our firefighters every day. We always have been and we always will be," stated Cover.
Several e-mails signal disappointment with Motorola, the company that installed the new system. A $9,744,656 contract was signed between the city and Motorola in 2009. $6,191,853 was for the digital upgrade. This was the result of an FCC requirement to switch to digital. Some officials question whether Motorola should have known the system might not be compatible with the radios.
On October 7th, radio systems engineer Robert DeLauney wrote, "My parallel concern is that why Motorola never advised the City of Virginia Beach of the known issues prior to executing a system and user cutover. Why didn't the sales and engineering team know about the known firmware issues? Either way, there is definitely a communication gap between the Motorola divisions and the customer."
Motorola Solutions spokesperson Steve Gorecki says the system is working as designed. He says when his company was informed about programming issues with the older radios, it offered to assist with reprogramming and tuning.
"We recommended that they retune the radios," said Gorecki. He adds it's the city's job to maintain the radios and believes the bulk of the issues has been resolved.
Meanwhile, sources tell 13News that the system is still a long way from being where it should be. For instance, there is problem communicating inside buildings to a person on the outside.
As radios are being retuned, there are some 933 that are not compatible with the firmware and may have to be replaced. At $3,000 a pop, that would add up to almost $3 million. The majority of those radios are in the police department.