Despite kinks, digital radio supported investigation

Olivier Doulier

Olivier Doulier

Olivier Doulier

Last month's Washington-area sniper shootings forced Montgomery County, Md., police into an early launch of a digital, high-frequency radio system that took eight years and $130 million to build.

The police had dozens of still-wrapped Motorola Inc. digital radios that they handed out to members of an investigative task force, which seemed to add a new jurisdiction almost daily.

In the end, catching the sniper suspects took the full-time efforts of an unprecedented number of law enforcement officials from a half-dozen counties and cities, two states, the District of Columbia and four federal agencies. They kept in touch over a radio system undergoing a prime-time stress test a month before its planned launch.

There were plenty of communications glitches, both human and technical.

Police radio interoperability, a pillar of homeland security efforts, was not yet solid enough to connect federal, state and local officials seamlessly. As Montgomery County's radio systems manager said, it was 'interoperability by the seat of our pants.'

Different bands

Maryland state police worked over a low-band frequency. Virginia state and Prince George's County, Md., police were on higher bands. Montgomery County and about a dozen other jurisdictions around the state had converted to an 800-MHz digital system. Washington police were on a high band but planning to move to 800 MHz. And federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, FBI, and Marshals and Secret services operated on their own bands, inaccessible to state and local authorities.

'The [new digital] radio system gave us a tool to unite the investigation,' said Sgt. Bruce Blair, Montgomery County police radio systems manager. 'I wouldn't say it was key, by any stretch of the imagination. But it certainly supported the whole operation.'

In July last year, Montgomery County had begun fitting patrol cars with digital radio consoles and mobile computer docking stations. Two months later, the department was training SWAT teams, K-9 officers and special operations investigators to use the digital equipment.

When the feds joined last month's task force, they had no radios compatible with those of local units. 'You go the traditional way,' Blair said. 'You hand them your radios.'

Blair said Montgomery County handed about 130 digital radios to federal and state officers on the rapidly growing task force.

About 30 units went to Maryland troopers, whose nondescript van next to the task force command center sprouted antennas that could patch together hundreds of different frequencies. Montgomery County hadn't yet put all the pieces together to establish a dedicated circuit that could translate one radio's output for another.

The shooting of a 13-year-old middle school student in Prince George's County galvanized the task force. Dropping everything else, Montgomery County slapped together a patching system to pull Prince George's police into the fast-widening communications loop. Soon it stretched upward to county and federal helicopters.

Patch work

Days later, when another victim'an FBI cybercrime analyst not connected with the investigation'was shot in Falls Church, Va., Maryland and Virginia state police set up a dragnet by patching into each other's radio systems.

Though swift, it was no secret. The plans could be overheard by anyone with a Radio Shack police scanner.

'The oldest scanner in the world can pick up those signals,' said Matthew Snyder, technology administrator for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va. 'Those two channels are controlling the whole Washington Beltway, and it's wide open. There needs to be secure transmission.'

Digital trunked radio systems such as Montgomery County's are more secure, but in tactical situations, particularly the final arrest in Myersville, Md., the task force turned to a more trusted technology'their wireless phones.

'Quite a bit of stuff was accomplished through cell phones,' said Michael Bennett, director of Maryland State Police electronic systems.

Maryland troopers also borrowed about 20 text-messaging handheld devices and rushed delivery of another 50 from Aether Systems Inc.'s Mobile Government Division, bringing the total inventory to about 150. The state also bought 125 new digital radios to plug into Montgomery County's system. But the sniper suspects were arrested before the extra handhelds and new radios could be programmed for use.

A wider communications gap had nothing to do with technical compatibility. Officers talked in familiar, but often conflicting, departmental codes such as '10-50.' To a Montgomery County officer, the phrase means a traffic accident; to a Maryland state trooper, it means an officer in trouble.

'The radios work. The coverage is good,' Blair said. 'But something as simple as using plain language when talking to different agencies became important.'

Blair said he felt the brunt of ensuring smooth task force communications. Each borrowed radio had to be charged and accompanied by an extra battery. He was pulled out of church early one Sunday so he could hunt down more radios. Training, which was supposed to take almost three hours, had to be condensed into 10 minutes for busy task force members.

Regional wireless

By spring of 2004, police, fire, park and transit police throughout the Washington area hope to finish a $20 million regional wireless intercommunications system with Justice Department funding.

The Capital Wireless Integrated Network 'hopefully can coordinate much better than we have done in the past,' CapWIN project manager George Ake said.

In addition, Project SAFECOM, one of the Bush administration's 25 e-government projects, will set the stage for wireless interoperability among federal, state and local governments. But some believe these efforts are Band-Aids, not the long-term surgery needed to get regional police onto one compatible system.

'These voice systems are incredibly expensive. It's going to take a while,' Snyder said. 'I don't even know if we'll ever see it.'

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above