LINCOLN — Nebraska state troopers are raising renewed alarm about a $17.3 million state radio system they say is putting law enforcement officers at risk.
The troopers union has filed a formal complaint asking that the high-tech system be scrapped, citing dangerous confrontations that involved injuries to law enforcement officers. State lawmakers and the former head of the State Patrol also are expressing concern.
State officials say they are aggressively working to address the issues but say some problems will remain until local law enforcement agencies upgrade their radio systems. Officials also say it will just take more time for troopers to get used to the complicated system.
In its formal grievance, the State Troopers Association of Nebraska cited multiple incidents in which officers were endangered because they were blocked from calling for help or were unable to coordinate tactics. The union also claims troopers have been forced to use “unsafe” equipment.
“We've spent millions of dollars on a system that doesn't function appropriately,” said State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff. “We need to get these things fixed.”
The grievance was spawned by a Feb. 13 shootout with two murder suspects in southeast Nebraska that left one deputy sheriff wounded. Radio problems blocked troopers' direct communication with local deputies and fellow troopers, frustrating arrest efforts.
The complaint also cites a June incident in Alliance, Neb., where radio communications failed during a 14-hour standoff with a gunman who shot and wounded three officers and a hostage.
The World-Herald also learned of a third incident: a December rampage near Plainview, Neb., involving a distraught man who rammed a trooper's cruiser with a tractor before being shot and arrested.
“There have been numerous incidents of radio system failure since the equipment was installed ... and several examples where members were put in extremely dangerous situations,” the grievance stated.
During recent budget hearings, Harms and Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad asked whether more money and better radio equipment are needed.
Harms said some firefighters were trapped briefly by flames last summer while fighting wildfires in northern Nebraska because of poor performance of the radio system.
Troopers who talked to The World-Herald on the condition they not be named said they don't trust the system because of its history of failures during emergency situations.
While more training sessions have been ordered to address user errors, some troopers questioned whether that would solve problems. They say the system lacks enough frequencies to handle the 1,500 users, particularly in more populated areas of the state during a big incident.
Former patrol superintendent Tom Nesbitt said he has heard the concerns.
“I just pray that a public service officer doesn't get killed due to a radio problem,” he said.
Officials with the Office of the Chief Information Officer, which operates the system, and the State Patrol defended the system.
Besides additional training, they said technicians have been assigned to look into every problem. Equipment changes are being considered to improve reception and radio coverage.
The state's system has three frequencies per radio tower, compared with 20 per tower in Douglas County's emergency radio system. If all three frequencies are in use, it blocks out other users.
Brenda Decker, chief information officer, said her office followed industry standards in opting for three frequencies and said adding more is complicated and expensive. She said while adding more frequencies is being considered in some areas, that isn't the biggest problem.
What is the biggest problem?
“At this point, we don't know. It's different for different (users). ... It's different for every single issue,” Decker said, citing user error, inadequate training, failure to follow procedures and signal blockages caused by terrain as possibilities.
Col. David Sankey, the patrol's current superintendent, said improving the radio system is a top priority, but issues involving too few frequencies and additional funding are outside his control.
“There are growing pains and things we need to learn and things that we can control,” he said. “I think we're making progress all the time.”
Alliance, Neb., pharmacist Chas Lierk was held hostage at gunpoint for seven hours last June. He said he was amazed to learn after the standoff that troopers and other law enforcement could not communicate via radio with each other.
“They've got to learn by it,” Lierk said. “They're going to be in the same situation again, and people are going to die out of it. It's scary.”
The new system grew out of a task force initially headed by then-Lt. Gov. Dave Heineman. The goal: eliminate “dead spots” of radio coverage across the state, improve communications between various law enforcement agencies and upgrade an outdated system.
Because of cost concerns, the state chose a voluntary approach: Local law enforcement and the state's 500 fire departments could decide whether to join the system, sharing the cost for new equipment.
Only one local agency, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, has opted to join, though other local agencies are said to be considering it.
Sheriffs and fire chiefs have said they can't easily afford the expense.
By contrast, South Dakota used federal grants and required all emergency responders to join its system, which allowed the agencies to communicate with one another.
Twelve state agencies in Nebraska, including the patrol, Game and Parks and the Fire Marshal's Office, are the main users, along with the Nebraska Public Power District.
The World-Herald first reported the radio system's troubles in December. At the time, 481 reports of radio problems had been filed in nine months.
Troopers say the new radio system has, overall, provided better coverage of the state. But it's complicated and fragile: Several troopers can be knocked off the system if just one pushes the wrong button.
They report radio failures when cruisers park next to each other and when one cruiser's “repeater” — an in-car device that repeats a signal from a dispatcher to a trooper's mobile radio — is mistakenly left on.
During the Alliance incident, mobile radios carried by troopers and SWAT team members didn't work, putting troopers in the line of fire as they ran messages back and forth to a command post.
A couple of officers, pinned down by gunfire, resorted to using personal cellphones, until the batteries died.
The patrol blamed the problems on a “perfect storm” of issues, including a software upgrade that was only partly completed.
The troopers' recent grievance mentioned the system's failure to work “in simple and reliable ways” at Alliance.
The World-Herald also learned that radio communications were a problem during a Dec. 18 confrontation near Plainview. The distraught man, who had been served divorce papers and was turned back when he attempted to remove his children from a school, set a semitrailer on fire and went on a rampage in a farm tractor.
He rammed buildings and tried to run over a sheriff's cruiser before bashing into a cruiser, injuring a trooper.
Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt, first on the scene, said he couldn't communicate directly with other troopers responding. He resorted to radioing his dispatcher, who relayed messages to a patrol dispatcher.
“People were getting run over, and people were getting rammed and one person got shot. It was pretty frightening because we couldn't get to everyone involved (via radio) to let them know what's going on,” Eberhardt said. “We were very lucky that day.”
The troopers union grievance cited a similar problem, centering on a Feb. 13 pursuit of a couple suspected in a killing in Topeka, Kan., followed by a convenience store holdup in Pawnee City, Neb.
A trooper chasing a getaway vehicle couldn't directly call sheriff's deputies to coordinate a stop. Instead, the trooper had to call a state dispatcher, who phoned a sheriff's dispatcher, who then radioed a deputy.
Johnson County Deputy Steven Bures was grazed by a bullet after the getaway vehicle was stopped. The chase resumed, with more shots fired at law enforcement and more radio problems reported.
This time, a trooper was initially unable to use the radio system.
After “multiple attempts and a significant delay,” the trooper was able to get through, the grievance stated. Johnson County Sheriff Scott Walton said talking directly with troopers would have let his deputies respond sooner and might have ended the chase sooner.
The new state radio system, Walton said, has greatly improved coverage. “You just can't communicate,” he said.
Officials with the troopers union declined to comment further on their grievance or on Sankey's official response.
Sankey said the problems in southeast Nebraska were twofold. One, he said, is a problem left over from the old radio system: lack of “interoperability,” allowing different agencies to communicate. Johnson County hasn't joined the state radio system or devised another way to easily communicate via radio with the patrol.
The other problem, he said, was that a trooper failed to push an emergency button to clear a channel to talk with a dispatcher or other troopers.
State officials are also working with Motorola, the radio provider, to better position radios and antennas in cruisers to improve reception.
“It's a change. It's moving from a very basic analog (radio) system with 50-year-old technology to a digital trunk radio system,” Sankey said, adding that fellow state patrol chiefs tell him there's a “learning curve” when systems are upgraded.
As for interoperability, Sankey said the patrol continues to urge local agencies to join the state system or seek upgrades to better communicate with state troopers.
Decker, the state information officer, said recent tests indicate the new system covers more than 95 percent of the state, meeting the specifications of the Motorola contract. The old system had 80 percent coverage.
The troopers association is weighing whether to further pursue its grievance by bringing in an arbitrator.
Sen. Harms said he is seeking more information from the patrol about the radio problems.
Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann, whose job includes overseeing the communications system, said he's still learning about the system's issues but doesn't believe more money is necessary.
“It's a system that's better than what we had,” said Heidemann, who was appointed to the job last month. “It just takes time. It's getting better.”
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