Police and Fire to get better radios

Photo by Ron Leir/ Capt. Victor Mesce displays Motorola test radio.


By Ron Leir 


Dead zones.

For public safety employees, these are pitfalls to be avoided because it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open at all times.

Unfortunately, that’s not always possible when there are barriers to transmission signals, as township police and firefighters have discovered when attempting to talk via radio from the basement of Clara Maass Medical Center or the Middle School subbasement.

But the Belleville Police Department is taking steps to ensure constant and clear communication with help from the New Jersey Dept. of Homeland Security and Essex County.

Police Capt. Victor Mesce, the department’s training officer, said the time has come to replace the hand-held Motorola HT1000 radio units that Belleville police officers have used since 1994.

“We can’t get parts for these radios anymore because of their age,” Mesce said. “Our radios are obsolete.”

Plus, in addition to the dead zones, there’s another issue that’s driving the replacement of the existing units, Mesce said. The current communications system relies on phone lines to carry signals through several antenna relays or, in communications jargon, “repeaters,” so “if the phone lines go down, we’re done,” he said.

Because other municipal Police and Fire Departments around the state are struggling with similar predicaments – and because of the communication snafus that plagued New York’s police, fire and emergency workers during the 9/11 catastrophe – Mesce said that N.J. Homeland Security is pushing municipal public safety units to upgrade their systems.

At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission is implementing a nationwide mandate to reserve certain radio frequencies in the 700 megahertz band for government first responders to prevent interference from commercial users, effective Jan. 1, 2013.

“The future is going to be digital signals, transmitted via microwave relays,” Mesce said. “Under the PSIC (Public Safety Interoperable Communications) system that Homeland Security wants us – along with every other police and fire department in the state – to use, the state will maintain the infrastructure. There will be no phone lines but there will be minimal (telecommunications) maintenance fee.”

Belleville, which, according to Mesce, “is going to be one of the first to tie in” to the PSIC, is getting a $100,000 grant from Essex County to purchase, under state contract, as many of the new hand-held Motorola 6000 radios as possible.

“We want to assign each of our 100 officers their own individual (battery-operated) radios,” Mesce said. “We feel, this way, our officers will want to take better care of them.”

Motorola loaned the department some test radios and Mesce said they’ve worked well. “We did tests throughout the town, including from the basement of Clara Maass and the Middle School sub-basement, and everything came through crystal clear,” he said. Officers were also able to talk on the units to other law enforcement agents as far away as Berlin in Camden County.

Mesce said the department’s intent is to share the new equipment with the Fire Department.

Another advantage of the PSIC, as advertised by Homeland Security, is that it allows for “talk groups” between various first responder and law enforcement agencies, both locally and in the New York/Pennsylvania region, Mesce said. “We’ll be able to interface just by switching channels.”

Mesce said the new radios will also be equipped with a GPS application so that if an officer is injured or trapped at a fire scene or some other not easily accessible location, the officer can be traced through that feature.

The new radios will only be the first step in the process of modernizing the township’s public safety communications system, Mesce said. Next will come new patrol car radio units, new hardware for the police and fire communications centers and new units for the police mobile precinct; all contingent on funding availability, he added.

Developing the state-wide communications infrastructure won’t come cheap: The cost is expected to exceed $30 million, with most of that money coming from federal sources and some from the state Department of Transportation.

The Newark Police and Fire Departments have already begun to phase in the new system, as have the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, Elizabeth Fire Department, Montclair, Passaic and Fairfield, and the counties of Union, Monmouth, Somerset and Hunterdon, according to Mesce.

Meanwhile, there were these developments in other local police business:

Belleville is applying for a federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant to help pay salaries and benefits for up to five new officers who must be veterans. If it gets the grant, the feds would contribute $625,000 covering three years but Belleville would have to match that with about the same amount in local funds. Police Chief Joseph Rotonda said that applicants should be notified by July whether to expect any money. Last year, only three New Jersey communities were successful, he said. Right now, Rotonda said, the department’s rank-and- file strength is “15 below” the number of officers he’s permitted to hire under township ordinance. “With the 2% (budget) cap, it’s very difficult to get back to where we’d like to be,” the chief said.

Under an ordinance introduced by the mayor and Township Council on March 13, and up for public hearing April 10, any police officers and firefighters hired after April 1 would have to be a Belleville resident and would be required to continue living in the township for at least two years after his or her appointment. Also, non-residents appointed to “classified positions” would be required to become Belleville residents within one year of their appointment, except for CFO and tax collector. Rotonda said: “We like to keep our police officers in town. It works out well. They care about (the township) more.” Currently, he said, 25% of the department’s personnel live in Belleville.

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