By Amy Wenk

Failing radio infrastructure is the Sandy Springs Police Department’s biggest issue, Police Chief Terry Sult said at two recent meetings.

“That is a critical issue we need to address,” Sult said during an April 28 meeting about the department’s goals for the next five years.

Sandy Springs pays Fulton County an annual fee to operate each radio used by the city’s public safety personnel. Other north Fulton cities like Johns Creek, as well as Rural Metro Ambulance, also use the county’s radio system, said Sandy Springs Assistant City Manager Noah Reiter.

“Fulton County maintains that infrastructure,” Reiter said. “Unfortunately, the infrastructure is fairly old and outdated. It’s an old analog 800 megahertz system, which actually isn’t even really supported by Motorola anymore. We’ve experienced not infrequent failures.”

When a radio antenna or repeater device goes down, it can cause loss of radio coverage in parts of the city, Reiter said.

Sult told City Council during a budget workshop May 4 that a radio failure occurs about once a week.

“I keep seeing emails saying the police are down,” Dist. 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio said.

Emergency operators use the radio system to dispatch police and fire first-responders. Radios also are necessary for officers to call for backup.

“When we are out there on the streets, this is our lifeline,” Community Officer Timothy Burrell with Sandy Springs police said about the radio he keeps on his left side at all times.

Sult said he is pursuing options with nearby cities. “There is a system out there we can leverage. It’s a matter of money and people talking.”

That radio system is operated by the Urban Areas Security Initiative, a national program from the Department of Homeland Security.

“It is a mechanism to provide public safety funding for the larger metropolitan areas of the country,” Reiter said. He said Atlanta got federal money after Sept. 11, 2001 and purchased an “overlay” radio system that can broadcast digitally to all nearby cities.

“If there is a large incident and you require interagency response, where different agencies are coming together on the scene, there used to be no way for those agencies to talk to one another directly over the radio system,” Reiter said.

The Urban Areas system provides a bank of radio frequencies that are on all jurisdictions radios and allows communication across a common channel. But Sult said no cities currently use the radio system.

“There are no annual users of that system, and that system has been in place now for the better part of five or six years,” Reiter said. “They are not getting much use and it’s a state-of-the-art system. Some of their maintenance funding is probably drying out, so they are looking for some regular subscribers to utilize the infrastructure that exists.”

Reiter said negotiations are underway between five north Fulton cities, possibility the city of Dunwoody and the Urban Area Initiatives Radio Group.

To build a radio system from scratch could cost $10 million, Sult said.

Leveraging the overlay radio system would run close to what Fulton County currently charges, Reiter said.

Sult said $4 million in system enhancements might be needed. That includes installing three more radio towers in north Fulton. One would be located near the Concourse building in Sandy Springs.

“We would like to switch to it at the end of this year if possible,” Reiter said. “There is really minimal infrastructure required. We could probably even switch to it comfortably without adding those two or three additional tower sites and still have more reliable and better coverage than we have today.”

Sult said told City Council May 4 they might have to allocate money for the radio system switch in next year’s budget.

“We are on a very aggressive timeline,” Sult said.