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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

Police digital radio switchover coming

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Honolulu police Cpl. Leland Cadoy uses the new digital radio that the department will switch to in mid-March.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

City officials hope enough of the kinks have been smoothed out of the Honolulu Police Department's new digital two-way radio system that it will work cleanly for patrol officers when the switchover is made in mid-March.

Police expectations also seem hopeful, tinged with realism.

"I've been through all the meetings," said Alex Garcia, a detective and former police union official who has been critical of the evolving communications system. "I know it's improved, but it's never going to be at the point where it's perfect."

The switch is being watched carefully by the Fire Department, which is sticking with the old system for another year while its new equipment is being ordered and any further problems get ironed out.

"We're being held back because the system is not operational," said Honolulu Fire Chief Attilio Bernardi. "But a lot of my discussions with them (police), seems like they've worked out the problems."

A small but passionate group of civilian radio enthusiasts also is watching, more worriedly. Technology is on the brink of shutting out the radio-scanning hobbyist from eavesdropping on police communications by scanning radio frequencies.

"The impact on radio enthusiasts can literally be described in one word: devastating," said David Cabatu, who operates a Web site for hobbyists.

Unlike the old analog system in which voice travels on radio-frequency waves, digital radios convert voice transmissions to a numerical code that confounds eavesdropping. Only HPD, charged with the maintenance of the digital system, can crack the encryption in the digital signal.

Scanner hobbyists and the rest of the public knew this day would come, but many had begun to wonder when. The initiation of the high-tech communications web has been fraught with delays.

The digital system was activated in 1998 for an initial outlay of $20 million, and the potential looked promising. In addition to voice transmission, Honolulu's system also allows police to send and receive computer data, such as warrant or license plate information, without calling dispatchers.

But "dead spots" where signals can't penetrate and the need for various software and hardware upgrades and replacements have forced the city to spend an estimated $40 million on the system.

As a result of the dissatisfaction with the signal, the Police Department kept only a few of its divisions on the new system — SWAT, tactical and crime reduction units, for example — and switched its large patrol division back to the analog system.

But the transmission network has undergone improvement, said Malcolm Tom, city deputy managing director, and police patrol officers have been having their portable receivers programmed for the digital signals in recent weeks.

Among the improvements aimed at erasing dead spots, Tom said, is the installation of, or adjustments to, signal amplifiers at locations on the Pali Highway, various Windward O'ahu sites, Lualualei and even in the basement area of the main police station.

Some city public safety workers who've been using the system, which is known commercially as Pro-Voice, think it's a clear improvement. Rob Miller, a dispatcher for the city's lifeguards, said about 100 staffers have been using the new digital scanners since last summer.

"It's worked excellently for us," Miller said. "It was difficult to get to some areas around the island before — Ka'ena Point, some areas on the Windward side, Makapu'u didn't work, Diamond Head, Kahuku, Mokule'ia.

"Now we've been able to pick up pretty much everything all the way around."

Wayne Jones, acting director of civil defense, similarly has heard no complaints from his staff, who merely had to become used to peculiarities that come with any piece of hardware.

"You've got to wait until it beeps at you to talk, and you didn't have to do that on the old system," he said. "There are holes (in coverage), and there always will be, as long as there's radio."

This comes as cold comfort to the hobbyists, who soon will hear a deafening silence from their scanner speakers and who feel that they should be able to listen in on how their tax dollars are being used. Cabatu remains philosophical, however.

"I see this switch to digital as a temporary change in my monitoring habits until a scanner which can track Pro-Voice can be developed," he said.