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'More Difficult And More Dangerous': Alachua County Seeks To Avoid Tragedy By Upgrading Emergency Radio System

James Clifford
James Clifford

When firefighters most needed to communicate on Sept. 11, 2001, their radio system failed.

Seventeen years later Alachua County first responders are facing the same problem.

“Six (radio) towers covering 940 square miles is just not enough,” said Col. David Huckstep, chief deputy of Alachua County Sheriff’s Department.

A study conducted earlier this year by Virginia-based Federal Engineering was presented to the Alachua County Commission on Tuesday morning. It concluded that the Alachua County public safety radio system needs to be upgraded or replaced. Solutions to the problem have been discussed publicly since at least 2015.

Just about every local public safety agency participated in the study: Alachua County Fire Rescue, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, Gainesville Police Department, University of Florida Police Department, High Springs Police Department, Gainesville Fire Department, Alachua Police Department and Gainesville Regional Utilities.

The current radio system, implemented in 1999, is facing several issues, including coverage gaps and an inability to quickly adapt to the growing city, the study found.

Two recommendations for solutions to the issue were presented at the meeting. The first option, estimated at $6.8 million, is to expand the current radio system, which is operated by GRUCom, to improve coverage and reliability. The second option, estimated at $14.6 million, is to build a new standalone system to be owned and operated by the county for agencies outside Gainesville.

Staff recommendations suggest moving forward with the first solution to improve the current system.

“It looks like working with GRUCom makes the most sense financially with what’s already in place,” Alachua County Commission Chair Lee Pinkoson said in the meeting.

The commission discussed the possibility of a public safety referendum on the 2020 ballot for a one-year half-cent sales tax that would fund the update.

Brad Barber, director of Federal Engineering, emphasized the importance of creating a plan for frequent updates throughout the life of the system to keep it reliable. Other optional features presented in the study include GPS location services for officers who press an emergency button and interconnecting systems with surrounding counties like Columbia and Marion.

The radio system, which all public safety organizations share, doesn’t cover the entire county. Responders can’t communicate with dispatch when responding to an emergency in these areas.

“I’m really concerned about those areas that have poor service,” County Commissioner Charles Chestnut said. “That’s important. They are all taxpayers in Alachua County and the rural sometimes doesn’t get the services. I think for folks in those areas we need that coverage there.”

While it mostly affects rural areas, there are weak radio signals inside many large buildings in Gainesville, such as schools, hospitals and high rises.

Most schools faces this issue. Law enforcement encountered this at Eastside High School, 1201 SE 43rd St., when a student fight recently broke out. There was no signal inside the school and officers responding to the situation couldn’t communicate with dispatch, District Fire Chief Jamie Clifford said, who was the incident commander. Below, he explains in detail the problems with the current system.

Another topic of the meeting was the implementation of ordinances to require all new buildings to meet a minimum signal strength inside to help avoid coverage problems.

Tall buildings like the Standard, a 10-story apartment complex on University Avenue, create a problem known as “shadowing,” Huckstep said. In this situation, the building’s height blocks the signal and casts a shadow of faulty coverage on surrounding areas.

GRUCom recently implemented a system update, which Northcutt hopes will help alleviate some of the coverage issues, until the county comes up with a funding option. Public safety organizations will continue to face these issues.

“It’s not going to stop us from fighting fires,” Clifford said. “It’s going to make things more difficult and more dangerous, but we know that.”

Karina is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.