Shelburne Police sometimes find themselves playing “telephone” when they’re on their radios talking to other police agencies.
Except it’s not a game.
And they’re definitely not playing.
A little refresher: Telephone is a game many played as children, where one person whispers in the ear of the person next to them, who in turn repeats what they heard – or think they heard – to the person next to them. And so on.
When the message gets back to the person who started it, it’s inevitably a garbled mess – totally different than what was originally said.
And usually the result is uproariously funny – unless you’re a police officer in an emergency situation, trying to talk and coordinate with another officer, from another police department.
Shelburne Police Chief Aaron Noble said his station works closely with Burlington, Williston and other area agencies, but Shelburne’s police officers can’t communicate directly with non-Shelburne police officers.
“We’re analog and they’re digital,” Lt. Mike Thomas said. “If we need to communicate car-to-car, we would have to contact our dispatch, our dispatch contacts their dispatch, their dispatch calls their officers.”
It’s a four-way relay, Thomas said.
Not the optimum way to communicate when time may be crucial, and lives might be in jeopardy.
This issue is one of the reasons the Shelburne Police Department has asked the selectboard to put a $210,000 bond article for new radio equipment on the ballot for Town Meeting Day.
Going to a digital radio system will see a number of advantages, one of the most important is that it will give the Shelburne Police Department secure encrypted communication capability.
“Unfortunately, in this day and age, the bad guys have figured out that they can put a scanner radio app on their cell phones and other places. If our radios aren’t encrypted, they can hear all of our communications which obviously is an officer safety issue, they know where we are, what our guys are going to be doing, which can be dangerous,” said Tim Francis, a part-time dispatcher and who is heading up the effort and research into getting a new radio system. “It also allows us to interact and communicate with our surrounding police departments. Burlington, South Burlington, Essex, Winooski, Williston are all digital encrypted.”
If the bond passes and the police department is able to upgrade its radio system, another benefit would be easier communication with the fire department and the rescue squad, because some of the new radios will be dual band.
Currently, the fire department and the rescue squad operate on the VHF band and the police department operates on the UHF band.
Francis said some of the new portable radios and most of the mobile radios will be dual band radios with both VHF and UHF capability.
“So, if an officer is away from their car and there’s a very important message about a patient or something like that, all they have to do is turn a knob on that radio and speak directly to the ambulance squad,” Francis said.
If an officer gets into situation where they need backup, their portable radio will have an emergency button (or “Oh s*&# button!” as it’s sometimes referred to by officers...) on it, which, when pushed, will flash on the console back at dispatch with their radio number. “Without even having to say anything, the dispatchers will know they’re in trouble and we need to send help their way without the officer taking their eyes off the subject or doing whatever they need to do to make the situation better,” he said.
In some areas, not more than 6 miles from the police department, Shelburne Police say they can’t speak via their portable radios – the small radios that are clipped to the shoulders of their vests – to the base radio back at dispatch at the Shelburne Police Department.
Thomas said, if approved by voters, the new system would make the radio signals stronger, but “there’s no guarantee” they would get a signal everywhere, for example, if a radio went into a tunnel.
There is some discussion, though, about getting vehicle repeaters which would boost the signals even more.
Francis said the elements that would come with a new Shelburne Police Department radio system include eight mobile radios, 20 portable radios, batteries, earpieces, charging stations and all the labor to install the equipment.
Besides the portable radios and the base radios, the other crucial element keeping police in touch with the department and with fire and rescue is their mobile radios – the radios in the police cruisers.
When an officer arrives at the scene of an incident, be it medical emergency or a potential crime scene, they keep in touch with the base after they’ve left their cruiser via their portable radios.
It can be critical for dispatch to relay vital information to an officer. This information can come from a dispatcher discovering a history of violence from someone an officer has just pulled over or a dispatcher or the officer relaying critical medical information of someone in a medical emergency.
For these and other reasons, Shelburne police say getting a new radio system would be a gamechanger.