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HPD switches radios to new bandwidth

March 15, 2017 - 8:17pm

HILO — A long-awaited overhaul of the communication systems used by Hawaii County’s public agencies began rolling out this week as the Hawaii Police Department switched its radios to a new bandwidth.

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radio licensing, mandated that mobile radio systems operating on a broadband frequency were to move to a narrowband system by Jan. 1, 2013. Hawaii County was one of about 20 agencies nationwide that requested a waiver to extend that deadline.

Narrowband systems are better for long-range transmissions, and tend to be more reliable.

“It’s like night and day,” Major Samuel Thomas said on Wednesday. “Everybody’s noticed the difference.”

The new system also is digitized, Thomas said, meaning transmissions are much more clear than before.

Funding for the upgrade, which included buying new radios for all police cars and new portable radios, comes from a $31 million county bond issued in 2012.

The FCC’s mandate is intended to create more efficient use of the airwaves and free up bandwidth. Under the broadband system, congestion from multiple users in the same bandwidth is common.

“Every now and then, we get interference from other things … and hopefully this (new) frequently will have less of that,” Lt. Darren Horio said. “There’s an improvement, definitely, for officer safety.”

There have also been instances where unauthorized transmissions have taken place on the police frequency, Horio said: “Somebody with some radio know-how gets on the line and ties it up.” The higher, more narrow frequency should eliminate those instances, he said.

At the same time, county departments will be able to better communicate with each other because they will all be on the same frequency.

“Agencies will be able to talk directly to each other … it’s going to increase radio coverage islandwide (and) expand our range of zones,” said Kanani Aton of Hawaii County Civil Defense.

The technology shift also included upgrading the alternate dispatch center that Civil Defense uses for emergency purposes.

“We can activate the alternate dispatch center if something happens to the usual location,” Aton said.

County agencies such as the fire department and Public Works Department are also making the transition.

The shift to narrow frequencies means that people who follow police and fire news on personal scanners will have a harder time picking up transmissions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Thomas said.

“In terms of civilians who may want to scan transmissions, there are times that confidential information is said (on the radios,” he said. “That should be private.”

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