Bibb's law enforcement radio system falls short

Bibb County law enforcement officers evicting people from their homes can’t call Macon police for backup. Bibb deputies have been avoiding using a better kind of radio because they couldn’t record the transmissions until recently. And the enormous radio system behind every emergency agency in Bibb County is dying, with a replacement cost of about $12 million.

Those are some of the problems facing local police, deputies and firefighters, who cope with a sometimes-patchwork lifeline to dispatchers and other officers.

Bibb County Chief Deputy David Davis said the failing radio system hasn’t had a major breakdown in the past few months because of the weather. That system — which city officials say is at least partially broken 30 percent of the time — is prone to overheating and storm damage, Davis said.

“Typically, it works well in the wintertime, but our biggest fear is in the summertime,” Davis said. “Storms can come in and wreck the system,” for which there is no backup.

Andrew Blascovich, spokesman for Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, said the city is looking at a number of ways to replace the 800 megahertz radio system, which might cost $12 million or $13 million, depending on options. The city doesn’t want to rely on a July sales tax vote, he said, but that’s one of the options for a fix for a radio system that city police, Bibb County deputies, firefighters, ambulance crews and even public works crews all count on.

The overall radio system is more than a decade old and suffers from reliability problems and parts shortages. But at the same time, individual officers’ equipment also is showing problems.

The Macon Police Department is requesting more money in the next budget to replace some of its radios, said Lt. Eric Walker. The department has enough hand-held “walkie-talkie” radios but had to strip the more powerful radios mounted in detectives’ cars. Those radios have been placed in marked patrol cars that needed them, Walker said. If more radios are bought, they’ll be placed in newer detectives’ cars.

The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office will be moving to using digital radios in the next few months, Davis said. Digital radios can be clearer and work better than analog.

But until last fall, the sheriff’s office had a recording system that would monitor the department’s telephone lines and analog radio calls, but it couldn’t record the digital broadcasts. The recording system was replaced for about $12,000, Davis said.

Both the analog and the digital calls are run through the same failing 800 MHz radio system, Davis said. Digital has an edge there, as well.

“The analog portion of it is probably more antiquated, shall we say? Both of them have issues and could really go down at any time. But the analog equipment seems to have more problems than the digital,” Davis said.

Macon police are using only the digital radios.

That posed problems for officers with the Civil Court Sheriff’s Office, a small group of law enforcement officers that handles evictions in Bibb County.

Bibb County commissioners agreed this month to buy new radios, because the Civil Court deputies’ analog radios can’t communicate directly to the Macon Police Department’s digital radios. If Civil Court deputies needed backup from city police on an eviction, they’d call back to their office, which would then call Macon police. Davis said the bigger problem is with the 800 MHz radio system. The sheriff’s office is looking into building a parallel VHF system, a much older and less capable — but cheaper — system that provides a backup if the 800 MHz system fails.

Other police agencies like the Georgia State Patrol use VHF, which means officers in a chase would also be able to speak directly with colleagues from a different agency, Davis said.

Davis said the problem isn’t the type of system but rather the age of the computers inside. Parts are no longer made.

“This radio system was put into place in the mid-’90s,” he said. “The computer system, it’s like we’re trying to drive around in a ’53 Chevy. If the radio system doesn’t work, it’s hard for us to go out and answer calls and help the public.”