Cumberland County working to improve police radios

UPPER ALLEN TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Up until a few years ago police departments in Cumberland County could only talk to each other using their radios if they were located in the County.

The problem? Needing to reach out to other police in an emergency situation.

Only within the last few years are police in Upper Allen Township, Cumberland County able to talk to each other, and other police, in two other counties with the click of a few buttons.  The chief called this advancement a "win," but sayid there are a lot of other kinks that need to be worked out.

Patrolman Michael Keister calls his radio is his lifeline.

"These radios are vital," Keister said. "We never know who we're dealing with or what our intentions are."

Or when they're going to need back up. Being that Upper Allen Township borders York County, they find themselves toeing that line. If the officers went into York County, and needed to communicate to other officers. It was a little more complicated. They would have to be what's called "patched" by other dispatch centers to make it work.

"We now have an actual apps channel, on our radio," Keister said. "Prior to that it was a cell phone call and hopefully you had cell phone reception."

Now they can transition to the York County towers with the push of a few buttons. Because many of their radios made the switch, and are now Project 25, or P-25, compatible.

"Project 25 is basically the national standard that allows the radios to work regardless of vendor, so any radio can work on this system as long as it has those Project 25 standards or configurations," Bob Shively, Director of Public Safety of Cumberland County, said.

The problem? It's only York and Adams County that are solid guarantees for their P-25 compatible radios to work.

If they head to any other county, and they leave the geographic footprint, they have to communicate the old fashioned way, with dispatch patching. And that can take time, where seconds could be the difference between life and death. Plus, some radios in other counties aren't P-25 compatible.

"It's rare that we go out of county but the unfortunate thing is, we always like to be prepared, ya know we always like to be one step ahead," Upper Allen Township Police Chief James Adams, said. "If it's predictable, it's preventable."

And it's not an Upper Allen Township Police problem. They're better off than some other departments, who don't have any P-25 compatible radios. Only 400 of the 3,400 police radios in Cumberland County are. The last major upgrade was almost 20 years ago.

And part of the issue is that their current radio system is licensed through the FCC, so there are a lot of rules.

"Again there's a lot of communication occurring," Shively said. "It might not be directly through our radio and our radio system but by phone and to that other county dispatch center, that communication is being maintained."

"Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not," Chief Adams said. "Until we mirror the cell phone industry and have connectivity in all four corners of the state, there's always going to be that possibility for an issue."

The County expects all of their radios to be P-25 compatible by 2022 or 2023, but it's going to cost anywhere from 16 to 23 million dollars.

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