Preliminary testing of Deschutes County’s troubled new digital radio system shows coverage in Bend to be better than expected.
“The results were reasonably good,” said consultant Joe Blaschka of AdComm Engineering, who’s helped the Deschutes County Commission oversee a $5.5 million analog-to-digital upgrade beset with troubles since going live in 2017. The testing showed quality around the city to be around the level elected officials signed on for.
Bend Police officers have filed hundreds of complaints about dropped and garbled calls since July 2017, when the Deschutes County 911 service district went live on a new Harris radio system. Blaschka said some of the technical problems with the system are being addressed, but others are in the minds of officers.
He compared switching to digital to going from vinyl records to compact discs.
“It does sound different, and it does take a little bit of getting used to,” he said. “It’s kind of like moving to Boston from Bend. For the first month or two, you might have a hard time understanding people. But after a while, you get it.”
Consultant Rick Allen, hired by the commission in August, agreed.
“What the testing showed is, when six people are involved, from different agencies, there was some trouble hearing, but the vast majority of the time, they didn’t have any problem,” he said.
Over two weeks this month, representatives of Bend-area dispatch, fire and police agencies participated in delivered audio quality testing around Bend, and later, the rest of the 3,000-square-mile county. Riding in a vehicle outfitted with the various radios used by local agencies, officials would read a sentence while other officials listening at dispatch rated the sentence on perceived audio quality. They then switched roles. Officials at dispatch would read a sentence while the people in the vehicle scored the audio.
Using a grid map, they tested every square mile of Bend.
The sentences read aloud were “Harvard sentences,” the standard used in radio testing. They represent a series of phrases and sounds that can be difficult for the human ear to hear, for example, “The hogs were fed chopped corn and garbage.”
“It wouldn’t have made any sense to a guy just listening in on a scanner,” Allen said.
Delivered audio quality is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 defined as unusable and 5 defined as “speech easily understood.” The standard in public safety is a level of 3.4 DAQ.
There’s been debate locally about whether the county should have purchased a radio system guaranteed to provide better quality. But the new subjective test data show audio quality of 4 or above in every grid block in city limits.
“The key to it is this test’s subjective nature,” Allen said. “If it came out all bad, it doesn’t mean the system is all bad. And if it’s good that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that still need to be done.”
“Subjective” DAQ testing is intended to paired with “objective” bit error rate, or BER, testing, which officials are now conducting around the county. Testers ride around with a computer, recording digital data that will be compared against defined quality standards.
This is intended to tell officials where coverage is best and determine which areas need improvement. The one trouble spot detected in the DAQ testing is near the steep canyon walls above the Deschutes River in south Bend, Blaschka said.
The complaints in Bend related to poor in-building coverage are another issue Blaschka expects to improve with time, as new building codes are implemented and building owners buy equipment to improve coverage. In-building coverage was also a problem with the old analog system, Blaschka said.
But what’s been going on with the Bend Police radios? The problems were so bad that the Bend Police officer’s union filed a complaint with Oregon OSHA. Calls failed to transmit for officers in foot pursuits and requesting cover, according to the complaint.
“This is an extremely serious situation that has not been fixed and is unacceptable,” the complaint reads.
Blaschka said he doesn’t have all the answers, but things have improved through tweaks to the system’s infrastructure and are expected to get better with future upgrades, including new transmission towers at Overturf Butte in Bend and outside Terrebonne.
“We’ve found that there are fewer complaints with the younger than with the older officers,” Blaschka said. “I’ve been around a long time myself, and I don’t really like the sound of digital, either.”
Blaschka added, “The interesting thing is, (Bend Fire Department), they’ve been driving around and testing things for a few weeks, and they don’t seem to have the same problems the PD does.”
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter did not respond to requests for comment.
At a recent meeting of the Deschutes 911 user board, Bend Fire representative Bob Madden said the new radio system works every place they regularly go, and better than the old analog system.
Bend Fire Department was scheduled to migrate to the new system this year, but put on the brakes after seeing the problems experienced by Bend Police. Spokesman Dave Howe said Friday the department will not move to Harris radios until it is “100 percent” certain the system will work properly.
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