Overcoming Hills and History for Interoperability in Boxborough
"I don’t think there’s anything more that we could want—our needs are fully met."
Boxborough, Massachusetts is a small town with a distinct character and history that is a source of pride for the town’s residents. With roots as a farming town, the community treasures its open and wooded spaces and several historical landmarks including the Freedom Trail. When Police Chief Warren Ryder decided it was time to update the police department’s communication technology, he knew he had to keep the residents safe, while preserving the town’s personality and distinct aesthetic integrity. It wouldn’t be easy, but he wanted to ensure he got it right.
“In New England, we are strong on tradition.” Boxborough Chief of Police Warren B. Ryder said, “But that doesn’t mean we should be holding ourselves back from the many changes and advances in the great world of communications.”
Modernizing the town’s first responder communications system began with an intensive situational assessment – and the strength to take a hard look at how dire the current situation had become. Both police and fire departments were using an antiquated system that was underserving first responders and becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. In one case, the Police Department was relying on equipment that was well-beyond its life expectancy and had to buy replacement parts on eBay just to keep the system operational.
Facing Reality, Preparing for the Future
It was obvious to Chief Ryder that change was needed, but he knew he needed a thorough understanding of how difficult implementing a new system would be and how to do so in a cost-effective manner. He assembled a team of experts to assess the communication system and infrastructure for the town.
An outside perspective confirmed that the town’s system was due for a major upgrade. The system consisted of three separately installed systems operating on different bands. The Police Department utilized a VHF repeater with a single remote receiver. The Fire Department operated on a mixture of UHF and Low Band with a cross band repeater. The Department of Public Works operated on Low Band with direct unit-to-unit communications. Unsurprisingly, interoperability between town departments was limited at best.
When listening in to radio traffic on the police channel, one expert with Communication Consulting Service reported: “It was horrendous. I could barely make out what the officer was saying.”
Chief Ryder said that one incident made him realize just how important it was to make a change.
“During a vehicle and then foot pursuit of a wanted suspect, I found myself alone, facing down an armed perpetrator who was trying to steal my cruiser,” he said. When I was trying to call for back-up, all dispatch and responding units heard were garbled messages. Thankfully, I got out of that situation okay but a close call like that was a catalyst for making a change.”
Challenges: Hills and History
While only about 10 square miles, Boxborough has a distinct, hilly topography that poses a challenge for a comprehensive communications system. There are three large hills within the center of town and the police department is located between two of those hills.
Such difficult terrain typically requires installing several towers to ensure that uninterrupted services reach both high and low ground. Boxborough, however, has an ordinance in place that prohibits installing any new towers. With vivid history and a pride in continued preservation, the town was passionate about making no exceptions to the tower ordinance.
“In order to find a creative solution, I met with the community to hear their concerns and gain an understanding as to how we could move forward without sacrificing the history and natural beauty of Boxborough,” said Chief Ryder.
Solution: P25, Simulcast and a Museum
At first, Chief Ryder had to appeal to some skeptics who insisted that a Simulcast system was not necessary for the community. The process began by implementing a 2-channel system, but the police and fire departments only managed about 50 percent coverage with many dead spots when trying to communicate between dispatchers and officers. While it was a definite improvement from the aging system, Ryder was insistent that this system reach its full potential and leave no room for error in emergency situations.
After the brief experimentation with the 2-channel system, Ryder expressed his concerns and proposed implementing the Harris-Tait Project 25 (P25) suite. Thankfully, the town was receptive to introducing such a robust system that combines the benefits of an IP-based network with industry-recognized P25 standards.
Still, Simulcast had to work without building any new towers. The solution was to install, not a tower, but a telephone pole on private property – at the Boxborough Museum, located at the highest point of the town. At this location, all gear and infrastructure to support the tower was kept in the basement of the museum to ensure security.
The visual impact is minimal and the community is happy with the result. With an additional connection site in place, Boxborough could benefit from state-of-the-art first responder technology in harmony with the town’s character and natural aesthetics.
Today, the community of Boxborough enjoys a seamless Harris-Tait P25 Simulcast system, run with All-Comm Technologies, that has 98 percent coverage—more than the initial target of 95 percent. Citizens can be assured first responders can communicate on a multitude of bands with clarity and reliability.
Chief Ryder is pleased about the new system and is confident that communications will be there for the people of Boxborough when needed. He has come a long way since having to find aging system parts on eBay.
“Today, we have a fabulous system,” reflected Chief Ryder. “As far as radio communications, I don’t think there’s anything more that we could want—our needs are fully met.”