CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - It only took about 30 years, but law enforcement agencies in Linn County now have an easier time talking with each other.
Beginning Monday morning, the Linn County Sheriff's Office began operating on the countywide 800 MHz P25 digital trunked radio system. The city of Marion has been using the new system since last week and Cedar Rapids is anticipated to make the switch later this month after completing vehicle installations and training.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said radio communications between the county, Cedar Rapids and Marion has been difficult since the late 1970s. At that time, the county and two cities began using different radio technologies, limiting their abilities to communicate.
"The problem has been ongoing since the 70s," Gardner said.
In recent years, a number of factors have pushed the three entities toward establishing an unified radio system. The Federal Communications Commission mandated that when television switched to digital broadcasting in 2009, that law enforcement agencies switch from broad band to narrow band radio channels. At the same time, Cedar Rapids was operating an old radio system "that was on life support," Gardner said. But, it was a natural disaster that showcased the need for county and municipal agencies to be able to speak to each other.
"The flood (of 2008) brought it home when we needed to talk to each other and we weren't able to do that," Gardner said.
So, Gardner, Marion Police Chief Harry Daugherty and former Cedar Rapids Police Chief Greg Graham pitched the $19.2 million radio project to the Linn County Board of Supervisors and Cedar Rapids and Marion city councils. Cedar Rapids took on 50 percent of the cost of the project, with Linn County taking on 30 percent and Marion picking up the tab for the final 20 percent. Each entity was responsible for purchasing their own portable and mobile radios, which were also utilized by fire, emergency medical services and other departments.
However, in the case of various county departments, such as Hiawatha police and fire and Springville fire, the county picked up the tab for their equipment, Gardner said. Area Ambulance, a private company, bought their own equipment and is part of the same radio system.
Other county agencies, including Juvenile Detention, Health, LIFTS, Secondary Roads and Conservation, will also operate on the digital radio system.
From a law enforcement standpoint, the benefits of county deputies being able to hear and respond to Cedar Rapids and Marion radio traffic are numerous. Gardner said his deputies frequently drive through Cedar Rapids and Marion and his civil deputies often serve warrants and processes within the metro area.
"When we come across something or if we're monitoring those frequencies...it makes far more sense for us to be able to respond, rather than drive by blind and not know something is occurring," he said. "We can monitor Cedar Rapids frequencies. We can be right there, perhaps even quicker than they are."
Additionally, the new radio system allows Linn County to communicate with authorities in Johnson County, which operates on the same radio system. Gardner said that will allow Linn County employees in the southern half of the county to use Johnson County radio towers and Johnson County employees to use Linn County towers. Linn County deputies are in Johnson County on a daily basis to transport prisoners to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center.
Gardner said there is talk of other counties in the area coming on to the same system as Linn and Johnson counties, a move that would build on the current setup.
"It'd make it a regional radio system," Gardner said.