Better technology will aid emergency communication efforts.
For the past six years, Lakewood Ranch’s Willie Miranda has been working behind the scenes to prepare Manatee County to switch to a new P25 radio system, aimed at enhancing communication for emergency responders.
Now, it’s all systems go.
As Miranda starts 2019, he’s focused on getting the network up and running, with a goal of finishing network testing by the fourth quarter of 2019. On the afternoon of Jan. 4, he visited a radio tower site off 59th Avenue East, behind Manatee Fire Rescue District Station 5.
It’s just one of nine of the P25 towers in Manatee County that will service law enforcement, emergency medical services, county departments, the School District of Manatee County and some state and federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The system is designed to integrate with Sarasota County, as well.
“The equipment going inside the towers is being installed as we speak,” Miranda said.
After equipment is installed, the networks will be configured and testing will be completed.
The system is supposed to be fully operational by the first quarter of 2020. The result will be better coordination with Sarasota County responders, increased safety for first responders and improved emergency response times along the University Parkway corridor and in other areas with historically poor signal reception.
Officials say the new system will curtail problems with radio signals in more remote areas of the county and in the University Parkway corridor, where there have been problems.
“Once (first responders) go inside a building, the signal gets degraded,” Miranda said. “For example, the worst case is sometimes they aren’t even able to hear the dispatcher calling them in. Sometimes, they hear the dispatcher, but the dispatcher can’t hear them. They have to run outside. That applies to all responders.”
Manatee County 911 Chief Jake Saur said sometimes first responders must step outside to coordinate with other agencies. For example, paramedics handling a cardiac arrest in University Park Country Club have had to step outside a building to coordinate information with a hospital, leaving the patient.
“This new radio system, we’re building it out for all that growth (in East County),” Saur said. “It’s a proactive way to keep from having dead zones.”
Miranda said the new system puts location trackers into roughly 4,000 handheld radios being used. That will enable the county to track the exact location — within 30 feet — of an individual. Miranda said it could be helpful if a law enforcement officer pursues a suspect on foot, or if a fireman gets trapped in a fire, for example. Currently, only the location of vehicles is available.
“Right now, they’re blind once they abandon the vehicle,” Miranda said.
The county also will be able to block outsiders from listening to communications on a police scanner.
Saur said there are several other improvements to the 911 system underway or completed. In November 2018, Manatee County implemented the RapidSOS data service, which uses GPS and Wi-Fi technologies. Individuals with updated iOS and Google phones can be located within 6 meters of accuracy. It’s the same technology used by Uber.
“If Uber can find you, why can’t 911?” Saur said. “As long as you have an upgraded phone, we can pinpoint your location. That’s huge.
“We can’t help you if we don’t know where you are,” he said. “That wasn’t the case in the ’80s because people only used landlines.”
Now, more than 80% of 911 calls originate from cellphones, Saur said.
In the first quarter, emergency services expects to finish converting its copper router system to a, internet-based model. Saur said Manatee is the second county, behind Collier, to do so.
The Emergency Communications Center last year installed an Automated Abandon Callback system.
If a 911 caller hangs up before a dispatcher answers, the system automatically calls the number back and checks to see if they need assistance.
Saur said 911 is required to call back any dropped calls or even calls purposely disconnected. Manatee County gets about 100 of those abandoned calls per day, and the automated system frees up dispatchers to continue taking calls.
This month, 911 will test sending outbound text messages to those who do not respond to phone calls.
“We have to get an answer,” Saur said.