Nearly a year after Deschutes County’s 911 district went live with a new digital radio system, Bend Police officers still file complaints about it daily.
But Deschutes County law enforcement agencies expressed optimism Tuesday that persistent problems plaguing the $5 million system will soon be resolved.
Deschutes 911 dispatches for all public safety agencies in Deschutes County. In July, the 911 district pushed play on a new digital radio system, and replaced the analog system it inherited from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office in 2016.
Since mid-May, the district has averaged between seven and nine user complaints about the new system per day, according to weekly updates provided by Deschutes 911.
All of the area’s law enforcement agencies are now on the new system by Harris Corp., including the two largest agencies — the Bend Police Department and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. But still using the old system and waiting to make the transition are the fire agencies, which are scheduled to migrate to Harris in the fall.
Most user complaints are for garbled or digitized sound and low volume. A major source of frustration appears to be poor coverage inside buildings, including schools and the Deschutes County Courthouse.
Most of the complaints come from officers and sheriff’s deputies in and around Bend. Police chiefs in the cities of Redmond and Sunriver — which are also in the district — said they see few problems with the Harris system, despite some early hiccups after it went live.
Deschutes 911 Interim Director Sara Crosswhite said different agencies have experienced different problems with the system.
In March, Crosswhite replaced Steve Reinke, who oversaw the Harris transition and took much heat from authorities for the botched rollout.
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter said the problem his officers experience seems to be related to the geography of hilly Bend, and the nature of digital radio communications. Redmond and Sunriver are far flatter than Bend, which explains why those departments experience fewer radio problems.
“The answer might be more towers,” Porter said.
Several vendor representatives attended a meeting with law enforcement personnel last week, including personnel from Harris, consultant Adcomm and Motorola. Porter said the meeting was productive.
“One of the problems has been everybody’s in a defensive posture,” Porter said. “Harris, specifically, is in a defensive posture, and so having real open dialog is challenging.”
Last month, 911 radio users were optimistic the addition of a transmission tower on Overturf Butte would improve coverage in Bend. A temporary site on the butte, housed in a trailer, went live on May 31, while administrative staff finalizes designs for a permanent site. But according to data provided to The Bulletin, the new temporary site has had little effect on the number of daily complaints.
One member of the public, Scot Brees, spoke at Tuesday’s user board meeting. Brees is an independent IT developer and amateur radio buff who’s gone on several ride-alongs with local agencies in light of the problems with Harris.
“It is my absolute professional and personal opinion that you hold off on the fire rollout right now because the problems that I’m observing in communication and terminology still show that you aren’t necessarily going to be able to tell whether or not the new system is working,” Brees said.
In other business, Crosswhite announced that the district’s lone candidate for a new management-level IT director had dropped out of consideration after being heavily courted for more than a month.
The position was approved by the Deschutes County Commission to address problems revealed during the Harris rollout. User representatives at Tuesday’s meeting discussed the challenge public agencies have attracting high-quality job candidates for tech-based positions.
Crosswhite said a job description will soon go out to various trade publications, and a head-hunting agency might be hired for recruitment.
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