Outdated radio system public safety issue in Riley County

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MANHATTAN, Kan. (WIBW) -- Riley County’s emergency responders and central dispatch operators depend on clear radio signals to save lives.

“But there’s a lot of the time that the radio traffic is broken, so I don’t have a complete picture of what is going on,” said RCPD dispatch shift supervisor Tyler Siefkes.

Riley County dispatchers have to work around broken radio communications, from too much static to complete drop offs, on a daily basis.

According to Siefkes, the dispatchers deal with up to 10 radio communication issues a shift, keeping them in a constant guessing game when deciding to send in reinforcements or other emergency service providers.

”The dispatcher has to make a judgment call about how many back up officers to send. It’s certainly a helpless feeling to not be able to have a clear understanding of what’s happening out there,” said Siefkes.

The problem began over three years ago when the Federal Communications Commission implemented a narrowbanding mandate to help with congested radio waves.

“In order to get more users on the system, the FCC basically cut the system in half but put twice as many users on it,” said Riley County emergency management director Pat Collins. “We increased the power as much as we could, we looked at adding additional sites. We’ve done a whole bunch of that and it didn’t help.”

Since narrowbanding, the radio coverage in Riley County dropped from 70 to 40 percent according to Collins.

Communication manager at the Riley County Police Department Diane Doehling, says after narrowbanding went into effect, pockets of radio interference started affecting communication from just outside of RCPD headquarters where central dispatch is located.

“We have trouble communicating with the officers from the back lot and from Home Depot which is less than a block away,” said Doehling.

According to Doehling, emergency services also struggle reaching dispatch when responding to incidents in the areas of Manhattan High School, Manhattan Regional Airport and the town of Ogden.

The City of Manhattan and Riley County commissioners are looking into solving the issue with an 800 megahertz radio system with a price tag ranging from $6-12 million.

“Radios continue to grow in price and if we don’t start building and paying for that system now, we’ll end up paying for more in the future,” said Collins.

A committee comprised of representatives from each of the emergency service agencies headed by Riley County commissioner Marvin Rodriguez, is responsible for investigating all the needs and vetting bidders.

“We’re talking about law enforcement, EMS, ambulances, fire district, maintenance…How are we going to pay for it? That’s going to be the hardest part,” said Rodriguez.