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Options studied for new radios

Most of the hand-held radios used by the Sheriff's Office are obsolete.

When Joseph Sekula talks about "cannibalizing," it's not what you think.

He's talking about police radios. Specifically, the electronic guts inside those radios, and having to remove one piece from one radio to replace a dying part of another radio.

"It's gruesome stuff," said Sekula, who is a radio technician for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Sekula has to cannibalize frequently. A button on one deputy's radio here, a tiny antenna there. Some of the radios are a decade old.

The electronic surgery is required for one reason: Most of the hand-held radios used by deputies are obsolete, Sekula said. The company that originally sold the equipment no longer manufactures many of the parts.

"When we exhaust the stockpile we have, it's over," said Sekula. "It's time to break out the Superglue."

It's one of several problems plaguing the county's 13-year-old radio system _ problems that are most often noticed by the Sheriff's Office, the system's largest user.

Some of the other problems include:

+ Repeated lightning damage to the three radio antennaes in the county. Although employees have been able to fix the damage after each lightning strike, there are newer antennaes available that are more resistant to such damage.

+ The increase of radio users since the system was installed in 1988. The system is only capable of handling a certain number of users, and while the county is not at full capacity, the wait time for deputies and other employees to talk on the system will continue to grow.

+ So-called "dead spots" around the county. Some deputies report that they are not able to communicate via the radios on the county's fringes. Others on the system, such as firefighters and county employees, do not have those problems, county authorities said.

These "dead spots" are in part because of weather, a radio user's proximity to buildings, and the fact that hand-held radios are not as powerful as radios installed in larger vehicles, such as fire trucks. Still, said county radio technicians, the system provides coverage to about 95 percent of the county, which is typical for any system of its size and age.

For a few months, deputies had a back-up means of communication: cell phones.

On March 1, Sheriff Bob White asked road deputies to turn in their agency-issued cell phones. At nearly $7,500 a month, White said cell phone costs were projected to go over budget.

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said that deputies without cell phones are not at greater risk: "we were able to conduct the business of law enforcement before we got the cell phones," he said.

In October, a consultant recommended that the agency improve its radio system. The consultant suggested two options _ at a cost of either $8.5-million or $11.6-million.

Under the cheaper plan, the agency would receive 1,000 new portable radios and two new antenna sites for better coverage.

The other alternative is a "complete replacement design" including new radio consoles, 1,300 new mobile and portable radios, new towers, equipment buildings and other equipment.

Doll said White is studying the entire communications system. During a recent forum with Times editors, communication was certainly on White's mind _ he mentioned that he needed a new system.

"Sheriff White has not done a complete evaluation of the Sheriff's Office, and he's still evaluating the radio system," Doll said. "If someone wanted to give him $20-million for a radio system, he'd take it."

_ Tamara Lush is the police reporter in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6245. Her e-mail address is lushsptimes.com.

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