By Amy Wenk

Police Chief Terry Sult

It may take longer than police first thought for Sandy Springs to upgrade its failing analog radio system.

Sandy Springs Police Chief Terry Sult said in April and May that outdated radio infrastructure was the department’s biggest issue.

“The noise and the interference on the radios has been such that it has been very difficult to hear and understand,” Sult said.

If a police officer or firefighter gets into trouble, Sult said, “they may only have one chance to get that radio, and if you can’t understand them because of some noise in the radio system, that can be the difference in life and death. It’s extremely high-priority.”

As an option to upgrade to a digital system, Fulton County and its cities hope to use an existing radio system called the Metro Atlanta Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). That system serves Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Clayton counties, as well as the city of Atlanta. But the number of departments getting involved is making it difficult to move quickly, Sult said.

Sandy Springs pays Fulton County an annual fee to operate each radio used by the city’s public safety personnel. Other north Fulton cities such as Johns Creek, as well as Rural/Metro Corporation ambulance service, also use the county’s radio system.

“Fulton County is looking at how they are going to evolve,” Sult said, and there have been meetings between UASI, Fulton County and north Fulton cities. “We are operating as a group. We are looking at all of our options. Right now it looks like the latchkey in all this is UASI. That is kind of the hinge on what brings everything together.”

Sult said Sandy Springs already has approval to use the UASI system as a backup to its existing system. He said by the end of August the department’s 380 radios would be reprogrammed to work with UASI at a cost of $40 to $60 each. The backup system will help ensure coverage in some of the city’s dead zones, Sult said.

“We’ve got to make sure our people are safe.”

UASI, a program from the Department of Homeland Security, started in 2003.

Officials in the metro Atlanta area spent some of the federal money on an “overlay” radio system, based in Cobb County, that can broadcast digitally to all nearby cities. The Urban Areas system provides a bank of radio frequencies that are on all jurisdictions’ radios and allow communication across a common channel.

But Noah Reiter, Sandy Springs assistant city manager, said, “the system never really gets used” and needs new subscribers to help offset the nearly $1 million a year it costs to operate.

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners, on June 2, agreed to evaluate the option of joining the UASI digital radio system, said Angela Barrett, director of Fulton County Emergency Communications.

“We have engaged in dialogue with the UASI working group and the system stakeholders to determine the feasibility and best approach,” Barrett said. “Upon the completion of the legal, technical and operational evaluation, we will make the appropriate recommendation to the board of commissioners.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed recently was elected chair of the Metro Atlanta UASI Senior Policy Group.

“I believe elected leaders have no greater responsibility than to ensure the safety of their constituents,” Reed said in an Aug. 18 press release. “I look forward to working with the Metro Atlanta UASI to make the city of Atlanta and the region as safe and secure as possible.”

As chair of the policy group, Reed will work with officials from Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties on homeland security efforts.

Though there is much talk about UASI, no decisions have been finalized.

“We want to make sure we make the right decision,” Sult said. He said he expects a decision on UASI to come early in 2011.

“Individual staff members of UASI’s participating jurisdictions have had initial conversations at a very high level to consider options for Fulton County’s analog radio system,” Julia Janka, program director of the Metro Atanta UASI, said. “At this time, no formal discussion regarding these options nor any specific proposals has been identified and presented to the UASI decision-makers for their consideration.”