It’s the end of an era for emergency communications using analog radio on Martha’s Vineyard when the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office digitizes the airwaves Thursday.
The move will make first responder communication clearer and more stable, but a side effect will be the silencing of traditional scanners that many Islanders use to follow fire, police, and EMS activity.
The cost of reconnecting with those transmissions will require an investment of about $400 to $600 in a digital scanner, according to Dukes County Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Gould, one of the architects of the modernization project. Deputy Gould said he also hopes to channel certain major emergency response communications, fires and crashes for example, into a traditional scanner frequency — 154.1225 — but that’s still a work in progress.
Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden said the modernization, which has cost $4.9 million, has been due for many years. The cost has been funded entirely through the state’s 911 regional development grant program. Upgrading the aged communications infrastructure has been one of Sheriff Robert Ogden’s top priorities since being elected in 2017.
“It’s a great story, 53 years in the making, one sheriff to another,” he wrote. “Sheriff John Palmeira created the first E911 radio communication system in 1968; 50-plus years later, we have finally completed what was said would be impossible: elevating public safety communication into present-day technology. Convincing six towns to come together in support of a regional system, politicking the state into a $4.9 million, three-phase, five-year grant. Which realized the complete new construction, rehabilitation, and replacement of all equipment and tower installations spanning the Island. We overcame local police, fire, and EMS opposition to our plan. We debated, cajoled, and begged MVC, zoning boards, water departments, town selectmen and officials, county government, as well as the public in general. This was a campaign promise I ran on in the last election; my word means a lot to me, my team at [the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office] are the same, that’s why I chose them, that’s why we have gotten to this day together.”
Sheriff Ogden said many hands helped realize the new system, including Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth. He tipped his hat to two of his staffers in particular. “The two real heroes of this project, who made it happen, are [Dukes County Sheriff’s Office’s] own CFO Lt. Col. Peter Graczykowski and Tech. Officer Deputy Anthony Gould,” Ogden wrote. “These two men were instrumental in the entire system coalescing into a regional plan; through their grasp of the financial picture, local and state politics, and their knowledge of the necessary technology. They made it happen.”
It’s a huge change for the reliability of the Island’s radio system. Gould said the Island has been using technology that is 30-plus years old.
“A vinyl record is kind of like an analog signal. It’s the difference between a vinyl record and an MP3 player,” Gould said. “It’s a major change in how the radio system in the background kind of operates.”
“My officers tell me that the new system is a big improvement over what the Island had before,” Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee emailed. “Though it is all still a work in progress, the transmissions are much clearer than they used to be, and it seems that we have much better coverage in areas where we had long had a difficult time in communicating. My department is really looking forward to the further rollout of the new radio system.”
Oak Bluffs Police Sgt. Michael Marchand said his department has been using portable radios provided by the sheriff’s office ahead of the full changeover, and for the first time in 30 years, he can hear Aquinnah and Chilmark clearly. He described the sound quality as “incredible.”
The change is switching from older, analog technology used by AM and FM radios and walkie-talkies to a newer digital or IP-based system. Gould said that instead of Island 911 calls going to the State Police in Framingham and then an operator transferring it back to the Island, 911 calls will now go directly to the sheriff’s office.
“We answer 911 calls directly, it’s not being transferred to us from other agencies,” he said.
Prior to making the switch, the sheriff’s office was using analog telephone lines. Under this system, the 911 communications center was the hub, and each tower site was a spoke of that hub. Gould said this was problematic because there was one point of failure. “If the 911 center were to lose power or go offline, the entire system would stop working,” he said.
Now the system is made up of a loop configuration. There are five sites for the entire system: The airport, Chilmark, West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Chappaquiddick. The sites are set up with IP links around the entire Island, with the concept that in case a tower goes down, there’s another path for the signal IP traffic to go backward and get to the other sites.
The likelihood of one of the systems going down is minimal, but each site has six-hour battery backups and generators. If one tower goes down, the entire system amps up the power output to make up for the lack of coverage that one tower may have provided.
In another layer of redundancy, the sheriff’s office installed standalone repeaters that are placed around the Island as a last resort.
The transition to the new system is not seamless. Gould said the sheriff’s office has been working closely with each Island department to give them updates on the technology.
For example, when a structure fire happened, Island departments were on different channels. Now, structure fires and other major incidents will have a designated radio channel, allowing different departments, even from separate towns, to communicate.
In the future, Gould wants to focus on bringing other governmental services into the fold, like highway, shellfish, and animal control, which, for now, will continue to use analog communications.