Wisconsin Law Enforcement Investigating Statewide Emergency Communication Needs

Death Of Trooper Killed In Line Of Duty Prompts Review
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Jeramey Jannene (CC BY 2.0)

Bayfield County is building a tower to improve emergency communications, meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are investigating what may be done to improve emergency communications across the state.

Bayfield County Sheriff Paul Susienka said the county has had problems with emergency communications since the Federal Communications Commission required changes to free up space on increasingly congested radio bands. He said the location of the county's towers, the terrain and interference have resulted in marginal coverage for some areas of the county.

"It affects communications between our dispatch center and units in the field – ambulances and fire services and law enforcement – and it affects our ability to page and contact those entities," he said.

Susienka expects communications will improve once construction of its $650,000 tower is complete. The county is combining work on the Washburn tower with another site to enhance communications and save money.

Dean Meyer, executive director of the Badger State Sheriffs' Association, said they're seeing a number of issues with emergency services statewide that vary by county. Some are experiencing problems with a lack of towers and terrain while others struggle with portable radio communications. He said several counties have upgraded their radio systems and experienced problems with emergency communications, including Juneau, Taylor and Kewaunee counties.

"The infrastructure for a digital signal requires more towers, and, if you don't have the towers, you don't have the signal. If you don't have the signal, you don't have the communication," Meyer said.

Another issue is that county and municipal services may be using different radio frequencies. Meyer said some counties upgraded their radio systems when the federal government made funding available for radio communications after 9/11.

"The problem is in some areas counties upgraded their systems – their radio – from a 700 mHz to an 800 mHz. Now, you’ve got an island," Meyer said. "You've got a county that went 800 mHz, and everybody around them is at 700 mHz, so they can't hear each other. It may have improved communications within that county, but it made it worse for neighboring counties or agencies coming in that county."

Meyer said they recently formed a group of sheriffs and state officials to assess county and regional emergency communications protocols and identify needs statewide. The assessment was motivated in part by the shooting death of Wisconsin State Patrol trooper Trevor Casper in 2015. Meyer said communication hurdles were identified during Casper's pursuit of a bank robbery suspect, which ended in a shootout between Casper and the suspect.

Casper, 21, was the youngest law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty in Wisconsin. He was killed on his first solo day on the job.

Meyer said a complete assessment of emergency communications needs, including upgrades needed for 911 infrastructure, are expected to be completed by the group's meeting in May 2017.

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