Cleburne County looks to solve radio issues
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Feb 16, 2013 | 3528 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Several Cleburne County emergency agencies are waiting for the Federal Communications Commission to let them know exactly why their radio systems aren't operating the way they should.

The Cleburne County Sheriff’s Department has experienced difficulty with its radio system for several months.

“We get into certain parts of the county and we can’t get no reception,” said Sheriff Joe Jacks. “We have to move around a bit.”

It’s a problem nearly everyone who owns a cell phone can relate to. But when it’s a deputy out on a call, it can be more than just an irritation, officials said. It could be a problem for instance if a deputy is in the middle of investigating a domestic disturbance, is in the home and his radio cuts out. He’s lost contact with dispatch, Jacks said.

Jacks provides all his deputies with a cell phone as a means of back up communication. But the radio problems are an inconvenience he’d like to see fixed, he said.

County Administrator Steve Swafford says he is working on it. Swafford said he asked McCord Communications to monitor the radio tower to see what was interfering with the signals.

“What they found out is they were receiving transmissions from Haralson County” in Georgia, Swafford said.

He contacted the Federal Communications Commission, which grants licenses for the radio frequencies, and they are investigating, Swafford said.

Haralson County law enforcement’s radio is not having the same problems and it is not causing the problem, said Tim Jones, chairman of that area’s Metropolitan Communications Board of Directors.

Jones said he has spoken with the FCC and thinks it’s unlikely that Haralson County is causing the problem because the two counties’ radio frequencies are far enough apart there should be no interference.

In addition, Haralson County only uses that frequency as a back-up to its digital system, which wouldn’t interfere with Cleburne County’s frequency at all.

Jones said he would be willing to check, but he just doesn’t know where to look.

“Without them being willing to return my telephone call, I can’t go looking and help them,” Jones said.

Heflin Fire Chief Jonathan Adams said his department, which operates on a different tower than the Sheriff’s Office, is also experiencing problems and Adams has a different theory.

He believes it has to do with FCC-mandated changes in broadcast bandwidths. In 2003, the FCC required radio systems to use narrower bandwiths to accommodate more users, and set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2013. The Fire Department complied with the new regulations last year and since then has noticed problems with its radio signals.

“It’s shortened the distance we can talk,” Adams said. “The FCC mandate hurt everyone across the board.”

The Heflin Police Department shares the tower with the Sheriff’s Office. Heflin police Capt. A.J. Benefield said the problems with the police radios started before the department went to the new narrower bandwidth, but have gotten considerably worse since the switch.

Jones, whose company services the radios in Haralson County, said that’s been a common complaint.

“If they have it narrow-banded, they can pick up more interference,” Jones said. “The signal-to-noise ratio has degraded going to the narrow-band.”

In other words, he said, the signals the police want to hear can be drowned out by the background noise.

Many emergency service providers have gone to digital systems that always have a higher signal-to-noise ratio, but that can be expensive. A new digital-capable radio can range from $700 to more than $3,500 for one mobile unit. In addition, the systems are more sophisticated and take more expertise to maintain, so service contracts are more expensive.

Adams agreed.

“We’re a small county,” Adams said. “We can’t afford it.”

Still, Jones said the change to the narrower bandwidth should be attainable “unless their equipment was not capable of being narrow-banded or it wasn’t done properly.”

Swafford expects to have some word of the FCC investigation in the next two to three weeks, he said.

Efforts to contact the FCC about the investigation were unsuccessful.

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.

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