'Going to save us': Stonington police go live on state radio system

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Stonington — In a years-in-the-making move that officials said saved money while making residents safer, town police officially became tied to the state radio system this month.

The police force hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday to announce the news and thank those who helped Stonington become a model for other departments in the state.

As part of an agreement with the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, Stonington spent $1.3 million to build a communications tower and purchase portable and mobile radio units for its officers and cruisers.

While Stonington must maintain the new tower — which has remedied what used to be a dead spot on Barn Island — they now can use a host of towers across the state and can communicate directly with state police.

As more departments join the state system — Groton Town went live in March and Norwich is following suit — the ease of communication should continue to grow, Capt. Todd Olson said.

“This partnership is what’s going to save us when we all have to work together on — God forbid — a large-scale incident,” Olson said.

Olson said the force launched officers’ portable units during the Mystic Half Marathon on May 19 and brought the mobile cruiser units online about a week ago.

“Now we start to work on, ‘How can we work together now that we can talk together?’” he said. “Additional steps still have to happen to ensure that when something does happen, we either use plain language instead of codes — because Groton may not know our codes and we may not know theirs — or figure something else out. That’s something that’s still fluid."

Chief Darren Stewart said the expense, approved by the Board of Finance in February 2018, represents the department’s “biggest purchase ever, second to the building itself.” But he and others said it’s a fraction of the at least $3.5 million the department would have spent if it replaced its aging radio system with another independent product.

Olson said a radio consultant the town hired a couple years ago informed police they could join the state system.

“When we started to explore that option, it was a no-brainer,” Olson said. “We were like, ‘What are we missing here?’ It seemed too good to be true.”

But he said there was surprisingly little red tape along the way and that many other municipalities — including ones in Rhode Island and New York — are considering signing on.

“I think we opened floodgates for the state,” Olson said. “But I don’t think it’s a concern for them because I think it’s what they were looking for.”

First Selectman Rob Simmons, who chaired the town Board of Police Commissioners 32 years ago, said communication always has been an issue for law enforcement.

“In those days, officers called in from a phone on a telephone pole,” he said, chuckling. “It’s simple: If you don’t put money in communication ... all the other aspects of police work fail because officers don’t know where to go and what to do."

Olson said police negotiated prices for service with Motorola Inc., but purchased Kenwood radios because they were cheaper and replacements don't need new licenses.

"We spend money here like it's coming out of our own pockets," he said.

Stewart, meanwhile, crafted a memorandum of understanding with the state with relative ease. Among other things, the memorandum outlines how the town should maintain the tower and requires the state to give ample notice should a major, expensive upgrade be needed.

“None of this could have happened without the support of the town and the finance board,” Olson said. “They knew how important it was. They stepped up to the plate and they put some money away each year to help fund this — and it worked.”

“This is great for not only Stonington but the entire area,” he said.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, came straight from Hartford to present Stewart with a citation from the legislature.

She said the new system “is a great example of how state government can work with local leaders.”

“If we did more of this, Connecticut would be in a better spot,” she said.

l.boyle@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version adds information about the radios Stonington police purchased.

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