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Watertown police go digital

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There were days when a Watertown police officer was out of touch.

He or she might be in Samaritan Medical Center or Watertown High School. Perhaps the Dulles State Office Building. Suddenly, the officer needed backup, but nobody in the police world could hear his or her radio request.

The portable radio in the officer’s gear was proving worthless, at least in this block building with its brick walls. It was not sending or receiving, or at the very least, transmissions were garbled.

That scenario for the Police Department became history Aug. 2, when it went digital with the UHF band. But what became better for city police became not so good for people who like to monitor police chatter on their home or office scanners. Listeners can still follow the goings-on of Jefferson County sheriff, state police, and city and county fire dispatches, but their city police frequency has gone silent.

Eavesdroppers have a remedy — if they want to invest about $400 to upgrade their equipment. And the demand is “huge,” said a salesman at Radio Shack, Salmon Run Mall. “We are getting about 50 calls a day,” he said.

City police, with their UHF band, have a higher frequency, which cuts through those brick walls and provides clearer and sharper transmissions so that officers, no matter their location, can carry on a verbal exchange of crucial information.

But the UHF band presents a drawback that boils down to what’s good for the city isn’t so useful for the county. Joseph D. Plummer, Jefferson County director of fire and emergency management, said the shortcoming of UHF is that its signals carry for a shorter distance.

“We would have to build numerous towers across the county, and that would cost a lot of money that we don’t have,” Mr. Plummer said.

So the sheriff and fire dispatch will continue to use VHF for the foreseeable future, he said.

The city’s radio conversion has been in the works for about five years, Mr. Plummer said. It began under the leadership of former Fire Chief Daniel J. Gaumont, before his departure in 2009 for Texas, with the formation of a committee geared toward devising a means of direct radio communication among all units of various agencies responding to an emergency. The outcome was a federal grant which, with the city and county each dedicating about $100,000, created a fund exceeding $1 million for a radio system upgrade.

The county now has achieved that communications capability, Mr. Plummer said, and city police can join those conversations simply by changing their radio channels.

While the city’s investment helped replace an outdated radio system that would have had to be replaced by January, because of federal standards the county’s money brought “simulcasting” into its communications network. Mr. Plummer said the county formerly had two radio towers, one in the north sector and one in the south. Police alerts using the north tower were not heard in the southern portion of the county, he said. Now that a third site has been added in Watertown, alerts are heard countywide, he said.

After the Federal Communications Commission approved the city and county radio updates, consent also was required from the Canadian government, Mr. Plummer said.

A treaty between the two countries mandates that any changes in radio frequencies within a 100-mile radius of the international border must be approved by both governments, he said, “and that is very difficult to obtain.”

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