Combing the woods on a call for shots fired, Sgt. Robert Mitchell has two invaluable tools to protect himself and the residents he swore to protect: his gun and his radio.
The sergeant was relieved to hear the County Council recently approved new radios with better reception for first responders. Sgt. Mitchell sometimes deals with scratchy reception on his beat in rural southeastern Volusia County.
“It makes for a very challenging circumstance when you can’t transmit what’s going on to everyone around you,” said the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office sergeant. He explained, most complaints of gun fire are hunters too close to a residence.
Still, he also deals with vehicle crashes and trying to place a medical helicopter near a scene with injuries can require some creative radio work, including holding the hand held radio higher in the air. Or he sometimes has to return to his police vehicle to use its more powerful radio.
Improved radio communications for southeast Volusia County first responders are among many upgrades to the county’s emergency communications services. The Volusia County Council approved a $24.6 million upgrade to its public safety radio system June 25 by unanimous vote.
As part of the upgrade, the county plans to increase the number of towers from 13 to 15 to improve radio coverage. A new 320-foot tower will be erected along Lake Harney Road between Osteen and Interstate 95. It could be standing within six months. Another new tower is set for Bunnell at a site the county will share with Flagler County.
According to the county records, the 15-acre tower land near Osteen is owned by the Richard R. Schmitt Sr. Trust and it required a special exception to be erected in the Natural Resource Management Area.
“Existing towers in the area do not meet height requirements or are too far north to meet the coverage objective,” according to an analysis conducted by the county’s Information Technology Division-Radio Services. The special exception gained approval at a County Council hearing March 16.
The expenditures the council approved June 25 included $1 million for structural analysis, engineering and modifications of existing towers. There’s another $110,000 to pay for permitting and wetlands mitigation for the Osteen tower site and $35,000 for the infrastructure requirements associated with a replacement tower site in Barberville.
The new Harris P25 model handheld radios that many of Volusia’s first responders will be issued have much better interoperability, meaning they will work with different types of radios across agencies and even county lines during emergencies affecting two or more counties.
According to County Spokesman Gary Davidson, “The existing 800 MHz system, which supports more than 9,000 radios, is nearly 30 years old and the technology has reached the end of its life cycle. In many cases, replacement parts are no longer available.”
First responders in Volusia County include law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, which constantly communicate with the dispatch center while responding to emergencies. By 2013, a county newsletter reported, there were 1.1 million calls for service, including 317,637 911 calls.
The council last year selected Communications International Inc. of Vero Beach, the same company that implemented its original radio system, to implement the new Project 25 (P25) system. Because of the complexity of the project, the contract took months to write and negotiate, Mr. Davidson wrote in a news release.
“It is critical the county’s public safety land mobile radio be upgraded to a modern P25 system now to ensure the continued reliability of public safety communication,” the county stated in a 2019 document seeking bidders for the new system. A second bid from Motorola was rejected.
Project 25 is a suite of standards that came out in 1989 for interoperability digital voice communications. Right now, the county uses a proprietary system that only allows L3Harris radios to function. Some of the law enforcement channels will be encrypted. All of the fire and EMS channels will remain clear and will be able to be monitored with a P25 scanner.
The new handheld radios will provide dispatchers with the GPS location of a first responder. The devices can be reprogrammed, updated or re-keyed “over the air.” The devices also will receive text messages.
When asked if the legacy system caused a problem for first responders, Volusia County Community Information Director Kevin A. Captain said, “Our existing system has served the county well. As far as we know, there has never been a case where radio communications has been an issue.”
The bulk of the money approved by the council, about $23.5 million, is for the system backbone, such as tower site equipment and dispatch consoles as well as about 3,300 new radios and upgrades to existing radios. The contract also includes maintenance for 17 years after the system is completed.
The entire project is expected to take about 2½ years to complete.
During approval of the expenditure, council members called the expense an absolute necessity.
“We all know we must maintain and update our communications infrastructure. It’s so important,” said Councilwoman Heather Post.
“This is not a want. This is an absolute necessity,” added Councilman Ben Johnson. “This is something that’s so important to our public safety that we just cannot overlook it.”
Sheriff Mike Chitwood was grateful his deputies, who transmit the majority of the county’s radio communications, will have an improved system and he said the public will be safer because of it. “This is a crucial technology upgrade that will ensure our first responders have a state-of-the-art lifeline to get help where it's needed,” the sheriff said.