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Police call on Allegheny County to upgrade 911

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 1:06 a.m.

Police using the north zone law enforcement channel are urging Allegheny County officials to upgrade the system before recent problems reoccur.

The radio channel, used by Tarentum, Harrison and other local departments, was out of operation for six days in late February.

Allegheny County smoothly switched to an “index” channel for those departments, but police said that didn't provide the same level of service.

“An index channel wasn't able to use the repeater on the west Tarentum hill,” said Harrison police Chief Mike Klein.That meant that police couldn't get uninterrupted communication on their portable radios, he said.

“We weren't hearing county 911 on the portables,” Klein said.Once officers left their cars, they didn't have a signal for the portables, agreed Tarentum police Chief Bill Vakulick.

“The signal was back in operation on the regular frequency last Saturday — Feb. 23 — but why wasn't there a channel other than an index channel?” he asked.

“We had to use personal cell phones and getting through to 911 is hard that way,” he said.

Fawn police Chief Tim Mayberry and Brackenridge police Chief Jamie Bock also said the county needs to make an upgrade.

County Councilman Nicholas Futules said he hadn't heard about the problem, but would welcome calls from the police chiefs.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said through a spokeswoman that he hadn't heard of problems on the channel, but learned the six-day problem involved a telephone line and not the transmission system.

Allegheny County 911 emergency services chief Alvin Henderson Jr. said the six-day delay happened when a vendor hired to restore the north zone channel had problems with the line. “There were two issues they had to deal with, not one, but by 6 a.m. Saturday, the channel was back in operation,” he said.

Henderson agrees that work needs to be done to upgrade police communications — and not only in the north zone.

The equipment hasn't seen a major overhaul since the county took over at the Harrison and Tarentum dispatch centers in 2007. The previous problems were infrequent and short-lived until last month.

The north zone now uses a single-site transmitter with a repeater at a tower. County 911 wants to move to a modern, multi-transmitter and multiple satellite system with clearer communications on both ends.

That upgrade should be completed in the west zone by April 1, said Fitzgerald's spokeswoman Amy Downs.

Downs said county money isn't set aside for the north zone “because we have not yet done the assessment of the area yet.

“That will occur after the western zone is done. That being said, that zone did have the best infrastructure when it came in, so this is likely a smaller challenge than others because we would be looking at expanding that infrastructure,” she said.

Finding money is another matter, Henderson said.Henderson said he wants to schedule a meeting with police chiefs.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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