Hamilton County goes digital

New digital radio communications live

-Daily Freeman-Journal photos by Kelby Wingert

Hamilton County Sheriff Doug Timmons holds one of the new portable digital radios. Each radio cost approximately $5,000.

Hamilton County recently flipped the switch to a new county-wide digital radio communications system.

The project to digitize the radio communications of the county’s law enforcement and emergency services has been a long time coming, said Hamilton County Sheriff Doug Timmons.

“The portable radios that we had were purchased by Sheriff Scott Anderson back after 9/11 and while they were good in their time, it was time to replace them,” he said.

The process started about two years ago, with the county switching to digital operations on Dec. 19 of this year. Now, all the law enforcement and emergency services agencies in the county are able to communicate on this digital system.

However, the county will continue to use the old analog radio systems for paging as Motorola, the radio service the county uses, does not support digital paging yet, Timmons said.

-Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Kelby Wingert

Each Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office car is equipped with the new digital radio systems.

The Sheriff’s Office has been training staff, dispatchers and other county employees on how to use the new radio system for the past several weeks.

“In the process, we’ve had some little bumps in the road and we overcame those and got the system up and working,” the sheriff said.

In total, the project cost $2.5 million, said Hamilton County Supervisor Doug Bailey.

“We had sticker shock at first,” Timmons added. “But then you do some research into this and this radio system, the communication is 10 times better than what our analog system was.”

With the new digital system, Timmons said his deputies have been able to communicate in areas in the county that their analog radios struggled to receive or send a signal. It was an officer safety and public safety concern that the radios sometimes didn’t work, he said.

Prior to flipping the switch last week, the Sheriff’s Office did tests with the radios throughout the county to ensure they worked, including in the South Hamilton Community School District buildings.

“Looking at the public safety side, it was well worth the cost,” Timmons said.

With the old analog radios, the Sheriff’s Office also ran into issues with communicating with the Iowa State Patrol, which was already on a digital radio system.

“We were unable to communicate with them (on radio) if there was an emergency or we were working a situation together,” Timmons said.

But now that the county is on a digital radio system, the county law enforcement will be able to easily communicate with Iowa State Patrol, which was immensely important for Timmons as Highway 20 and Interstate 35 both run through Hamilton County.

Included in the $2.5 million price tag were modifications to upgrade existing radio towers throughout the county, more than 50 mobile and portable radio devices and technical support from Motorola.

When the project was just getting off the ground, Motorola offered the county a 10-year lease with the first two years interest-free. Bailey said the county supervisors agreed to that offer, planning to refinance the project at the end of the two years. The interest rate for the lease with Motorola would be 4.86 percent starting in April 2020. The county supervisors are planning to refinance with a public bond.

“What we’re looking at – and we won’t know until the end of January what our interest rate will be on this public bond offer – but the expectation is something two percent or under, so a considerable difference to the county for long term financing,” Bailey said.

“It’s a big deal, especially for a smaller county to have a $2.5 million bond issue, but it was incredibly important and it’s just something that had to be done,” he added.

Over the past several weeks, the county has been installing the new digital mobile radios in all the Sheriff’s Office squad cars. Each deputy received a portable, hand-held radio. The county’s agencies aren’t the only ones who received the new radios.

“The other thing that the supervisors agreed on that helped the county a lot is each entity in the county – fire departments, ambulance departments, police departments – they were going to supply three radios, whether it be mobiles or portables,” Timmons said. “The idea behind this is that we didn’t leave them out in the dark, we didn’t leave them not being able to communicate. These radios are highly-expensive and they’re basically like a computer at your hip.”

The mobile radios and the portable radios are approximately $5,000 each, he said.

The county supervisors knew that some of the smaller agencies across the county wouldn’t be able to afford the $5,000 cost of each radio, so they included three radios – mobile or portable, depending on the agency’s preference or needs – to each fire department, police department, ambulance service and hospital in the county.

“It would make their service to the community that much more difficult not having the right radios to communicate with the dispatch center,” Timmons said.

In addition to the tower modifications and radios, Motorola also included 11 body cameras and 11 car camera systems for the Sheriff’s Office, Timmons said.

“Nowadays, just the way the world is today, that body camera and that car camera, to me it’s like a life insurance policy,” he said. “Somebody can come and accuse you of doing something and you can go back and view the video and see it didn’t happen that way. I think that’s a very good purchase and a very good asset to have.”

The body cameras are in use now, he said, but the car cameras are still yet to be installed.

Members of the community who like to listen to the police scanner will need to upgrade to a digital scanner to hear the new radios, Timmons said. While the Sheriff’s Office can’t give out the radio frequencies or channels to program into a scanner, the sheriff said they’re likely available online.

Timmons wants the public, who maybe also received some “sticker shock” at the cost of the project, to understand how important it is and why it is worth that price.

“If you need an ambulance, if your loved one is having a medical episode or if your house is on fire or your house is going get broken into, you want the fire department, EMS and law enforcement to have the right equipment to be able to help you,” he said. “We have awesome first responders and law enforcement in the county, but this is helping them do their jobs easier.”