03/06/2008

Sliced Verizon cable affected Fla. police radio service

Officers responded to emergency calls via text messages

By Valerie Kalfrin
Tampa Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — A new $20 million communications system can't come soon enough for Tampa police officers, who responded to emergency calls via text messages Tuesday after a contractor sliced through a Verizon cable handling their radio system, officials said.

Radio communication long has been a safety concern among the rank and file, said Jimmy Meier, vice president of the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union representing Tampa police.

Meier was out of town during Tuesday's outage but said a similar cable problem with Verizon several months ago took out most of the primary channels on the police radio system.

"This is certainly a situation that needs to be looked into," Meier said today.

The police department plans to select a vendor within 45 days for the new system, which will transmit via microwaves instead of telephone lines, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. The project will be paid for through federal, state and local grants, including about $6 million of homeland security money earmarked to improve interoperability among local public safety agencies, she said.

"I don't know if it would be foolproof, but it would be much less likely for something like this to happen," she said.

Tuesday's outage occurred about 9:40 a.m. after a contractor working for Verizon cut through the underground cable at North 15th Street and East 17th Avenue while digging a path to install new cable, local Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said.

The cable contained 2,400 pairs of copper lines that serviced 1,300 connections, including the police department, Elek said.

Verizon scrambled to restore service to the police by about 4 p.m. Tuesday, but some residential customers were without telephone service through today, Elek said. The outage was expected to be repaired fully by 8 p.m. today.

Elek estimated that Verizon cables have been cut accidentally about 375 times throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Sarasota and Manatee counties. Not every cut results in an outage, he said.

McElroy said Tuesday's outage didn't affect response times for several reasons, among them a light load of emergency calls, "which was fortunate for us," she said.

As soon as the radio system began emitting a busy signal, dispatchers switched to the department's own antenna, she said. Officers for the most part could hear the dispatch center but had to respond through text messages via laptop computers in their patrol cars.

The officers were assigned to ride in pairs to handle the calls and responses, she said. They canceled all self-initiated calls and traffic stops to focus solely on communicating about calls for service.

Relying on laptops for communication is a backup plan that officers use during hurricane season and that officers used in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Charley, when phone lines are jammed, she said.

"It's obviously not an ideal situation, but the laptop becomes the lifesaver," she said.

Copyright 2008 Tampa Tribune

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