Norwich police coping with low-band, low-tech radios, with no funding in sight

Norwich - In December 2012, Police Chief Louis Fusaro told city officials that replacement of the department's antiquated radio communication system "must be on the horizon," but to date, the estimated $7 million to $10 million project has not even been raised for discussion.

With outdated low-band technology now in use, police officers' hand-held radios often encounter dead zones and no service in basements and other spots, Fusaro said. At times, officers resort to using their own personal cellphones to call for backup or to report their situations.

Police Capt. Patrick Daley described one recent incident when Officer Scott Meikle responded to a domestic dispute and called for backup. That call was received, and when the suspect kicked Meikle in the face and broke his nose, Meikle called for an ambulance, and that call, too, was heard by dispatchers, Daley said. But when Meikle called a third time to report that he was chasing the suspect on foot, headquarters never received the message.

Daley said he could not say if the deficient radio system caused that problem or whether other factors were involved.

Resident Ashley Koehler learned of Meikle's situation a couple of weeks ago and now is determined to make sure the issue becomes a top priority for the city.

Koehler said she was shocked when Meikle told her his story when he responded to a call she made to police after finding empty bullet shells in her yard, which turned out to be blanks.

"This is a ticking time bomb," Koehler said this week. She called Fusaro and Daley to voice her concerns and met with City Manager Alan Bergren. She plans to attend future City Council Safety Committee meetings to raise the issue again and might bring it to the full council as well.

"One way or another, this has to get done," Koehler said.

Fusaro said the problem cannot be corrected with new radios or incremental upgrades to the radio system. What's needed is an entire new high-band 700 to 800 MHz system that would include a radio console, communications equipment for the dispatch center and radios that could link city police, fire departments and other outside emergency response agencies.

"Such a system could be the backbone of a city-wide radio system that could provide individualized radio service to every city department by utilizing low cost portable radios," Fusaro wrote in his request to have the item included in the city's five-year capital plan.

Waterford spent $6.8 million on its new system, which went online in 2010, and in May of last year New London was able to pair its new $2.38 million system with Waterford's to cut some costs.

But neither of those cities has the hills and deep river valleys Norwich has, which make both radio reception and cellphone service difficult in spots. When Fusaro submitted his request to the five-year capital plan, he estimated the cost at $6.5 million. Daley said updated figures are $7 million to $10 million.

Bergren said Wednesday that replacing the radio system is the long-term solution, but the city first has to grapple with the problem of lost signals. He is aware that officers use their cellphones but said even if the city issued cellphones, service in some areas is spotty.

Bergren said one solution might be found in the new fiber optic system Norwich Public Utilities recently installed citywide.

The first step in getting a new high-band system would be to hire an engineering consultant to analyze the city's needs and design the new system to prepare to go out to bid, Fusaro said. In Norwich, any bond expenditure over $800,000 must receive voter approval at a referendum.

Bergren knows of no major grant programs the city could tap. "Other municipalities that transitioned to this had to foot the bill through the taxpayers," Bergren said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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