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FFPD Suffers With Inadequate Radio Communication


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, March 13, 2019


   The Fort Fairfield Police Department recently presented their radio communication shortcomings to the Fort Fairfield Town Council.

   Communication interoperability between FFPD, the Fire Department and State Police barracks in Houlton—who does the dispatching for Fort Fairfield—is in a sorrowful state of disrepair and has created persistent problems in communications ability.

   FFPD Chief, Shawn Newell explained that if he found himself in a situation where he needed immediate assistance, he would have to call for backup on his cell phone—which isn’t always reliable, either, and takes time to dial—because the department’s portable handheld radios do not have a local repeater to link to.

“My officers have zero portable communications when we're out of the vehicle.  The only way we can call for backup is when we are sitting in our cruisers.  When I tell you the PD is pretty much one step above a soup can and a string, I'm not exaggerating,” said Newell.  “That's just not acceptable in my eyes.  For the past ten years I have been working for the town of Fort Fairfield.  I have been trying to get this change to take place because it's an incredible safety issue.  It's also a safety issue for our firefighters to not be able to communicate on the ground with everybody.”

  The FFPD uses a “car to car” simplex frequency for local use, which is shared by their handheld radios.  The issue is when in a valley, or behind a hill, the officers cannot communicate with each other because there is no repeater station to rebroadcast their transmission from a higher elevation.

   In a recent propagation study conducted by RCM Communications, it was shown that the portable radios currently used by the police department are non-functional throughout the town of Fort Fairfield. 

   “We can't get out anywhere in the town of Fort Fairfield on a portable radio when we're out of our cruisers.”

   It was deemed by RCM that placing a tower site to the area near the water district's water storage tanks on the top of Harvey Hill was the optimal place for a repeater for maximum coverage throughout the town.

   “When you get into Fort Fairfield, you have a lot of hills and knolls and King's Castle and those all interfere with communication, so RCM deemed that was one of the best places to put it.”

   Chief Newell also shared the issues he’s having when communicating with dispatch at the Houlton barracks.  “Right now, if you're sitting in my cruiser, if I start talking to the barracks, you'll start hearing another trooper and a game warden so we actually have two, three or four people all talking at once.  That's one of the major issues that we still face today; I can be trying to call for backup, trying to get information, and I've got a trooper, a warden, or all of the above talking over me.”

   Compounding the problem of potential pileups on the State police frequency is the fact that State agencies’ radios are not programmed to hear FFPD transmissions, so they won’t even know if a Fort Fairfield officer was having a conversation with Houlton and could potentially key over that transmission and interfere with it unwittingly.  “I could be sitting parked right next to a State Police officer, call them up on the radio and they can't hear me.  So we're strictly a 'tunnel' from my cruiser to the barracks and nobody else out there in scanner land.  These are the issues that we're facing.”

   A few years back, the FFPD cruisers had repeaters installed in their cars to increase the range of their portables, but that type of system still doesn't guarantee an officer's communication will get out - especially back to the State Police dispatcher.  “It's not a viable option, the way it was explained to us.  It is an option, but again, it's not going to be as reliable,” said Newell.

   Fort Fairfield Fire Chief, Vince Baldwin explained that when using an in-vehicle repeater to boost the range of the handhelds for officers that are out of their cruisers, one still needs to have a reliable repeater and tower at an adequate elevation in order to link that communication to other officers, and from Fort Fairfield all the way to the State Police in Houlton.  “Having an in vehicle repeater is good, but you need the total infrastructure for it to work right,” said Baldwin.

   Chief Newell says Fort Fairfield Public Works Department actually has a better radio system than the police department and the Fire Department’s isn’t much better.  “The Fire Department's system is actually better than what the police department has,” explained Chief Newell.  “We are literally one fraction above nothing.”

   “I talked with Chief Baldwin and I was surprised at how antiquated their system is,” said town councilman, Scott Smith.  “I was in the Fire Department in New Hampshire. Forty-five years ago, we had a better system than [FFFD has] today.”

   As part of a pilot program, the State of Maine has invited Fort Fairfield to join their newly formed digital communication network.  Chief Newell says Fort Fairfield is the only community in Maine to have been invited to join so far.  “This puts us on our own channel, on our own panel at the Houlton barracks.”

   But, FFPD needs to have the equipment and infrastructure in place to accept that invitation.  Equipment they do not have at this point.   “There are currently no other agencies allowed to gain access to the State's digital system and the town would be the first entity allowed to partake in this post-deployment integration process,” said Fort Fairfield Town Manager, Andrea Powers.

   An accurate price is being worked out for a repeater site and new radios for FFPD’s local Comms and the technical specifications and a review of the requirements that would have to be met to join the State's digital system.  “At this time, we can only estimate that the total project cost will be $100,000  but it's subject to several outside influences,” said Ms. Powers. 

   The Fort Fairfield town council voted unanimously to allow the town administration to move forward with the study and cost of radio upgrades for the Police Department and will revisit pricing and options once that report is finished.