It’s been about a year since Deschutes County launched its new digital radio system for all county law enforcement. It still is not working right. On top of all the problems with dropped and distorted transmissions, the county does not have a clear leader tasked with fixing it.

“We just have a hole here,” County Commissioner Tony DeBone said Wednesday at a work session. “We can’t even answer our own questions.”

The bad news just keeps coming. The county taxpayers paid $5 million plus for the radio system. It was supposed to make communications for law enforcement better. It has not.

A good example of the problems came on Monday. Law enforcement had a 30-mile chase of a Bend man who allegedly tried to barricade Bend police in their building and threatened to burn down the town. Police communications during the chase were plagued by dropped calls and distortion. Nobody has been directly hurt because of the radio problems. But it’s a dangerous situation for the police and the public.

There are even problems with proposed solutions to problems. The county is working on installing an additional, permanent radio tower on Bend’s Overturf Butte to improve coverage.

The cost will be at least $350,000. The county is using ADCOMM Engineering as a consultant to help it with technical issues. Commissioner Phil Henderson pointed out that based, in part, on advice from ADCOMM the county decided to go without a tower on Overturf in the first place.

The permanent tower on Overturf may not even work right. Harris Corp., the digital radio contractor the county bought the radio system from, says it cannot guarantee the tower’s performance. It’s not high enough. Harris says the tower needs to be 10 feet above the nearby water tanks and treeline. At Wednesday’s meeting, county officials said it couldn’t get permission from the city of Bend to go any higher. But the city says the county could have sought a conditional use permit to go higher.

Wednesday’s meeting wasn’t all bad news. There was a good suggestion that the county should look into requiring that new large buildings preinstall signal boosters, so public safety radios work better inside them. We had also asked County Administrator Tom Anderson in early July if the county had a specific task list of things to fix on the radio system. He said no. He brought a draft radio strategic plan to Wednesday’s meeting.

Commissioner Henderson said repeatedly at the meeting that the county needs a system program manager leading the county effort to fix the problems. The county needs someone proactively looking into issues, such as how many more towers the county may need, he said.

Nobody stepped up at the meeting and claimed they were already providing that leadership or would do it — not Anderson, not the interim county 911 director. The county is attempting to hire someone for that role and to improve 911’s technical expertise. That hire, though, may be months away. Commissioners need to put someone in charge today.

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