SUSAN HYLTON Tulsa World (Oklahoma), Staff Writer
BROKEN ARROW – A new digital radio system using “OpenSky” technology has cleared the way for a greatly improved ability for police and fire departments to communicate with other jurisdictions. But the public is excluded from hearing any dispatch scanner feeds because of its digital encryptions. “It’s a little disappointing,” said James Taggart, president of the Broken Arrow Amateur Radio Club. “I can’t hear anything either anymore.
Especially when storms are out, it’s nice to be able to listen to it, and it’s a nice oversight to have for regular citizens to be able to listen in on them.”
Police Capt. Mark Irwin said the city is still debating the issue. “The system is so new, we want to make sure we get all the kinks out,” he said. “We’ll reach a decision on whether we provide media outlets radios.”
The Harris Corporation provided the $2 million network, which has been fully operational for about eight months. The network is called VIDA, or Voice Interoperability Data Access, and it has the OpenSky radio/data and Project 25 systems.
Tulsa is taking steps toward digital systems, and Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said media access to scanner traffic was one of the first issues to come up. Jordan said the department is keeping the main dispatch frequencies available to anyone but is keeping investigation communications private.
“Some cities have a special media channel where they put out all the information they think is significant,” Jordan said. But this model puts police in the role of evaluating what they think is important instead of the media making those decisions, Jordan said. Keeping scanners quiet helps protect officers and prevents the “bad guys” from monitoring what police are doing, some law enforcement officers say.
“We’re trying to get away from everyone listening to us,” said Bixby Police Chief Ike Shirley. His department is also moving to digital systems.
Shirley said criminals use scanners to pinpoint officer locations so they can target another area of town.
The new Broken Arrow system has allowed the department to share its network with Bixby, Jenks, Glenpool and Wagoner County, which has about 13 rural fire departments, said Mark Ketchum, communications systems engineer for Broken Arrow. This allows officers to communicate even though the smaller jurisdictions are still on analog systems, he said. “It’s worked out very well for us in doing it that way,” Ketchum said. A sobriety checkpoint on April 28 was a good test of the new system, Ketchum said.
The Broken Arrow Police Department, along with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Lighthorse Tribal Police and the Alcoholic Beverage Law Enforcement Commission made contact with nearly 800 motorists and detained 154 people, including 10 alcohol-related arrests.
“The system ran 100 percent,” Ketchum said. “There were no issues whatsoever.” Ketchum said the digital voice system is the biggest adjustment. “It makes it sound a hair robotic, but once we got used to it, it’s worked very well,” he said.
Ketchum said the next technological advance will be a way to directly communicate with the state’s platform. The Intersubsystem Interface is being funded through Homeland Security. “Interoperability is being pushed at all levels,” Ketchum said. “You’ve got to be able to communicate with everyone around you.”