The Washington State Patrol breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday when it was granted a eight-month extension to switch to a digital radio system. The new deadline is Aug. 1 — not New Year’s Day.
Still, it’s a daunting project with a tight timeline.
To comply with the Federal Communications Commission’s mandate, the State Patrol must shift its wideband analog system to a narrowband system called APCO Project 25. The State Patrol took the fast track on this project, which would typically take about five years, said Bob Schwent, commander of the Patrol’s Electronic Services Division.
The move, estimated to cost $41 million, replaces a decades-old radio system. Under the traditional system, when a dispatch console breaks, it can be hard to find replacement parts, except at auction.
The State Patrol has purchased mobile and portable radios for every trooper and is in the process of replacing equipment in dispatch centers and mountaintop relay sites. Statewide coverage will remain the same.
“It’s been very challenging,” Schwent said. “With all the new technology going in, it’s a big learning curve for everyone.”
Digital radio comes with added perks. The frequencies can track troopers’ locations and put them on a map in the computer-aided dispatch system — a huge advancement for officer safety. Currently, if a troopers need immediate assistance, they push an emergency button on their radio that sends out a code with their badge number. Officials look up the badge number to see where the trooper last reported doing a traffic stop.
The digital radio puts a dot on a map saying where they are, not where they were.
“It brings us into the 21st century,” Schwent said.
Digital scanners using the new protocol are needed to pick up State Patrol chatter. Although transmis
sions can be encrypted, Schwent said they will use that feature rarely, only when it's necessary. He wants open communications with media and local law enforcement agencies.
Under the traditional system, the only way other police agencies can radio the State Patrol is through a patch at the dispatch center or by listening to a scanner.
"Now, we'll be able to talk directly to them," Schwent said.
Getting agreements in place that allow direct communication without hurting police operations is one of the most time-consuming elements of the project. The State Patrol is leaving some frequencies in a narrowband analog mode to talk with agencies that don't have digital radio.
The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, which provides emergency dispatch services throughout Clark County, has not converted from analog to digital.
The State Patrol is on track, though, to meet that Aug. 1 deadline, even after stumbling on a couple of technical bumps at mountaintop relay sites. Schwent said Yakima will roll out the system first, followed by Spokane and then Vancouver.