It was nine years ago, almost to the day, that Baltimore County faced one of its biggest snowstorms ever.
Public safety crews had to get around town and county public works crews had to clear roads. The cleanup efforts, complicated by more than 2 feet of snow, were hampered further by an antiquated, unreliable radio system.
After six years of planning, including three years of construction, the county announced Thursday that work was complete on a $57.6 million overhaul of the county's public safety radio system and $18.5 million in upgrades to the county's 911 center in the Circuit Court building in Towson. County officials and others gathered in a small conference room at the 911 center to discuss and demonstrate the new technology.
The two projects were funded by $71 million in county money, plus $3.8 million in federal grants and $1.4 million in state funding.
Both projects arrived on schedule and on budget, said Rob Stradling, the county's director of information technology.
The radio project included moving the county's radio system from analog to digital transmissions, added encrypted channels and improved coverage in remote and rural areas of the county by adding 10 more radio towers to the eight present before.
Though coverage inside the Beltway, for example, was historically "pretty good," Stradling said, "Some of the rural areas had weak signals."
The result practically eliminates radio dead zones in Baltimore County, whether an officer or technician is in an underground garage, a forest or an office building.
Police Chief James Johnson said the digital system would bring "enhanced clarity and enhanced coverage" for the police and fire departments. He demonstrated the new system by contacting an officer on Ivy Mill Road in Reisterstown, a common trouble spot. Check out the video attached to this article to see how it works.
Encryption would only be used by police officers to protect sensitive tactical information, not general police activity. Before the new digital system came online, Kamenetz said, officers were literally broadcasting their locations to suspects.
"A person robs the bank, and the bank robber could literally listen to the police scanner and hear what steps police are taking to apprehend that bank robber," he said.
Most importantly, officials said, the new system works with the county Department of Public Works radio network, improving communication between agencies during severe weather, street festivals and other events.
Ed Adams, the county director of public works, said such a system would have been particularly helpful in 2003, when the county faced a record snowstorm and Tropical Storm Isabel. Public works crews used dump trucks to help evacuate neighborhoods like Bowleys Quarters. A standardized radio system would help public safety officials and officers perform services more efficiently in emergencies.
"When they need us, we're there for them," Adams said. "When we need their help, they're there for us."
The 911 center receives more than 2,000 calls per day. The renovations there added capacity to the center and made it possible to swap components or locations in cases of emergency. So if, for any reason, the 911 center in Towson were to go offline, a backup center could immediately be activated without any loss of service. Other jurisdictions, like Baltimore City, could use the backup as well.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who secured federal funds for the project in her role as chair of the the Senate Appropriations Submcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science said the upgrades "will make sure that the dedicated staff of Baltimore County's 911 Call Center have the technology and resources they need to support their work of saving lives every day."