City of Warsaw revamping radio system for emergency personnel

Warsaw officials knew their communications system was in bad shape, but it became painfully clear in August during an emergency disaster exercise.

The drill involved a truck and car accident on the north side of Warsaw that resulted in a hazardous chemical spill that created a plume of gas in the air and a potential spill in a nearby creek.

The event highlighted the city’s inability to communicate between various departments responding to the incident.

As the drill unfolded, officials sent fire, police and ambulance units. But they also needed to contact the wastewater department, needed to rely on the parks department for manpower, and needed to contact and evacuate the airport where the supposed toxic gas was headed.

With the existing radio system, many of the departments were unable to communicate. Cellphones can’t be relied upon in a major emergency because the system can become overwhelmed.

“It was glaringly obvious we had communication issues,” said Mayor Joe Thallemer. “I can’t imagine if we were doing the real thing and have that.”

The Local Emergency Planning Committee organized the event and turned to a consultant, which released a report that was critical of the communication problems.

On Friday, officials pointed to a follow-up report as evidence for the need to upgrade the city’s communications network.

Much of the problem is that the city has relied on an outdated analog radio system.

After a short presentation from Police Chief Scott Whitaker and Fire Chief Mike Wilson, the city’s Board of Public Works and Safety approved initial plans to revamp the city’s entire communications system.

The city plans to purchase all of the needed equipment from J&K Radio Communications for $383,866 in a lease agreement that will be spread over three years at a cost of $132,199 per year.

Radio equipment will be purchased for the street, wastewater, cemetery, parks, airport, police and fire departments.

Officials said several departments that will benefit from the upgrades will share in the cost.

With Friday’s approval, authorities hope to acquire the equipment and have it installed and ready to use by the end of June.

The new system will allow city departments and agencies to talk with other agencies, including county officials and central dispatch.

“Now we will have the means city-wide on all radios to communicate,” said Fire Chief Mike Wilson.

Another issue that will be resolved is the failing radio antenna at the street department. With the new system, that will be replaced and housed at the downtown fire station, Wilson said.

Officials looked at upgrading the existing system, but it would have cost as much as $1 million.

“It would be kind of silly to stay antiquated,” Whitaker added.

The digital technology will also improve voice clarity and expand coverage dramatically, officials said.