Patching the radios

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As the search for the snipers terrorizing the Washington, D.C., area grew into a regional manhunt, about 1,000 investigators from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies looked to the Montgomery County, Md., radio system to help them communicate with one another.

Like the county's newly built emergency communications center, the new 800 MHz radio system was ready to go, but public safety personnel hadn't yet switched over from the 490 MHz system. That's because the new computer-aided dispatch system wasn't ready, said Gene Cummins, chief of the county's communications maintenance network. Computer-aided dispatch automatically assigns the closest available units to respond to an emergency.

The 490 MHz radios, part of an antiquated and disconnected system, would only link investigators to one another, not to the central dispatch location that was receiving tips from the public.

"This is a system of analog radios [that] is interconnected through microwave links, telephone lines and, in some cases, direct connections," Cummins said.

The components of the system were designed to come together in the "bunker" — the subbasement of the County Office Building in Rockville, Md. — and then connect to the emergency communications center.

Cummins and his team — along with representatives of Motorola Inc., which supplied the radios — were responsible for building electronic modules in the bunker to connect the old system with the new system. In the subbasement, they ran wires district by district, because the radios for each region of the county have their own frequency, receivers and transmitters, Cummins said.

Once everything was working, county officials issued about 120 radios from a warehouse stockpile to investigators involved in the sniper case. Agents from the Montgomery County police, Maryland state police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the FBI could all hear calls from police dispatch about suspicious people or vehicles that fit the description released by investigators. Then agents could decide who should respond.

"You have to have a common platform for all agencies to communicate," said Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the Montgomery County Police Department's records division. He added that the public could not access the new radio system, unlike the old one, whose transmissions were easily picked up on police scanners.


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