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City police dispatch radios going digital

New systems offer clearer audio, encryption

Sunday, April 7, 2013
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Schenectady Police Department Director of Communications Kevin Moore, with the city's new state of the art digital dispatch system hardware at Police Headquarters at 531 Liberty Street Friday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Schenectady Police Department Director of Communications Kevin Moore, with the city's new state of the art digital dispatch system hardware at Police Headquarters at 531 Liberty Street Friday.

— The Schenectady Police Department is in the process of upgrading its radio dispatch technology to a fully digital system, a process that could be complete by next month, officials said.

The new system, paid for by a Department of Homeland Security grant, will allow for clearer communications with officers in the field as well as the ability to encrypt communications for sensitive operations like raids, officials said.

Also, just as the department has upgraded its systems and receivers, the move will also affect those people at home who listen in to city police radio chatter.

Those communications will still be open to the public, but anyone who wants to listen will have to buy a new digital receiver. Frequencies used will remain the same.

The new equipment was delivered and installed several weeks ago, officials said. They are now working to get it fully operational before bringing it online. It is expected to be online by sometime in May, according to Kevin Moore, city police director of communications.

The equipment will allow the department to communicate through a digital signal, something that is far superior to the 35-year-old analog system it replaces, Moore said.

“The major benefit of digital is the voice quality is much better,” Moore said.

With the old system, the farther officers got from the tower, the poorer the quality of the transmission, meaning officers in Woodlawn might have trouble communicating.

With the digital system, those communications will constantly be clear, Moore said, and they’re clear until the receiver goes out of range.

“With analog, you go out to Woodlawn and the portables don’t work well,” Moore said. “You still get the transmission, but it’s scratchy. With digital, you either have it or you don’t.”

Digital’s range is wide, far exceeding the city limits, Moore said.

The other benefit of digital is the ability to encrypt communications. Moore said the department is in the process of crafting a policy for encryption, but he expects it to be limited to special operations or covert operations.

He could also see a scenario where dispatchers send officers to a home where there is known to be a scanner. That dispatch could be encrypted, meaning it couldn’t be heard on a normal civilian digital scanner.

As for other departments, Moore said he was aware of only a couple that have switched to digital. The main reason for that is cost, he said. The Schenectady system cost about $531,000, which includes oversight and infrastructure. That amount was covered by a Homeland Security grant, Moore said.

Both Colonie and the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department have made the switch, officials said.

Mike Haller, Colonie public safety communications supervisor, said Colonie went digital in 2007. He cited the improved voice quality.

“We like it very much,” Haller said. “We’re very happy with the system thus far.”

As far as emergency communication with other agencies in Schenectady County that don’t use digital, there are provisions in Schenectady’s system to allow for that, either via analog or other means, according to Ray Wemple, coordinator for the Schenectady County Law Enforcement Mobile Radio District, who answers to police chiefs in the county.

Also, if the proposed central dispatch idea becomes a reality, the different dispatching equipment would be moved to that location, with dispatching for each department used for its own cars.

Overall, Wemple said, the Schenectady system should work well.

“The main benefit of using digital is the fact that the audio is very crisp and clear,” Wemple said.

 
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