When a firefighter or police officer responds to an emergency somewhere in Alachua County, it’s good to know they can communicate by radio without problem.
At the moment, that’s not always the case across the county — a revelation put forth Monday at a county-city joint commission meeting.
Sixteen years ago, Alachua County’s law enforcement agencies put their radio communications on a trunk-tracking radio system.
What’s a trunk-tracking radio system? Without getting too technical, it allows each agency — every police department and sheriff’s office, fire rescue, GRU and Gainesville’s RTS bus system — to talk using the same radio system.
Sixteen years is an eternity in digital communications, and that was the central point of Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Col. David Huckstep’s presentation on Monday. Huckstep spoke on behalf of all public safety agencies in the county for close to an hour.
“What I’m hearing is our public safety personnel are, at times, unable to communicate,” city commissioner Randy Wells said.
“That’s why we’re standing here — because of that very issue,” Huckstep replied. Upgrading the 1999 system “doesn’t come without a heavy price tag, and that’s why we’re here.”
Huckstep noted for comparison Clay County’s recent signing of a $7.2 million contract with Motorola, and St. Johns County’s $24.5 million deal. Alachua County’s could fall somewhere in between those two systems, and GRUCom now needs to determine exactly what the county’s public safety agencies need.
When the needs and cost are decided, the city and county will work toward a funding solution.
The biggest difference between now and 16 years ago isn’t the radio infrastructure, but rather Gainesville’s vertical landscape. There are more tall buildings in and around the city than there were as the millennium began, and those buildings often interfere with radio transmissions from towers located around the county. Areas where it is most difficult for agencies to communicate include Cross Creek, Lochloosa, and various southwest areas of the county where major development is still ongoing.
And it’s not likely to get better without an upgrade to this system: Project 25 (P25), which is now only in use locally at High Springs Police Department — a smaller agency where the P25 is cheaper to operate and serves as a test.
Hockstep expressed concern with construction of taller buildings like The Standard, a 10-story structure rising at the corner of 13th Street and University Avenue.
“I’m not being critical here,” he said, “but just pointing out examples of unintended consequences.”