New City Radio System on the Fast Track

The City of Houston has pushed the "fast-forward" button on getting a 100-million dollar emergency radio system up and running earlier than planned. It will eventually replace an assortment of outdated systems for police, fire and public works that use yesterday's technology, have big holes in coverage and aren't able to communicate with other jurisdictions without special adaptors. Jack Williams reports.

"The most important piece of equipment in law enforcement and firefighting is communication."

At busy Fire Station Eight downtown, Executive Assistant Fire Chief Rick Flanagan says it's pretty simple; the fire department's radio system is on life support. It's an old analog system that operates on the 400 megahertz frequency. Most newer systems use the 700 or 800 megahertz frequency on a digital platform. Almost 20 years old, the old system has just 16 frequencies for both fire and EMS.

"With the new digital platform, we could have 36 or 48 different talk groups, so it allows us to better manage us as a department and put together a fingerprint of what type of platform we would utilize."

All four of the city's emergency radio systems are at least 15 years old and don't work well with other jurisdictions around Houston. Dennis Storemski is director of the Mayor's Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security. 

"Every other jurisdiction in the region is on 800 megahertz, primarily the counties, 800 megahertz system, probably ten counties around the city of Houston. So, if you look at a map, it's almost like a donut and we're the big hold in the middle."

Which creates problems when departments need to work with other emergency responders from outside of Houston. The new digital system will operate on the 700 or 800 megahertz frequency, have more than twice as many transmitter towers and will work seamlessly with other radio systems.

"We are building a what's called a Phase Two Project 25 system, which is the newest version of the standard. It will be, by far, the largest system of its type in the country."

The city's Deputy Director of Radio Communication Services Tom Sorley is in charge of building that system, a process that has now been accelerated and could be in place more than a year earlier than expected.

"It's similar to what the internet did, the internet protocol, which is a standard, what that did to open up the information super-highway. It's kind of the same concept. If you use standards-based equipment, then everyone will be on the same level playing field and be able to communicate."    

Sorley says the Fire Department could share some space with the city's Public Works department on part of the new system as soon as 2011. The entire radio system should be complete sometime in 2012. 

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...