Assuring Residents That Those Helping Them are Well Connected
"Thankfully, today I can confidently assure residents that the people helping them are well connected."
Mobile County, Alabama is the sprawling and geographically diverse region that ranges from cityscape to bayou. As the second most populous county in Alabama, the region requires a relatively complex communication system for police and first responders. Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) Director Charlie McNichol is responsible for maintaining reliable police and first responder connectivity across the county.
“The previous system was truly past end-of-life,” said McNichol. “It was making it difficult for first responders to do their job at critical times when they needed all the support they could get.”
The system that needed to be replaced, used by over 5,000 users, was functional but unreliable and unable to provide more advanced communications capabilities. Worse than the system’s limitations, Mobile County law enforcement officers had experienced radio coverage outages in rural areas, where at best, the connection was grainy and spotty. Mobile County was overdue for a new communications system.
Instead of pointing to the aging system, many officers blamed the radios for the unreliable coverage and spotty performance. The problem was not with the radios, but instead with the communication system and McNichol knew that correcting this perception would not be easy.
For that reason, McNichol started his first phase of the “rolling cut over,” a method that governmental districts use to gradually phase in different agencies onto a new system, with the group of long-time officers that had been most vocal about the shortcomings of the old system. He recognized these individuals were potentially his biggest critics.
“I knew exactly who would be testing these radios first,” McNichol laughed. “The folks that have a complaint for everything. If they could adjust and learn to love the new system, then anyone could—win over your biggest critics first.”
The rolling cutover allowed for smaller agencies to first adapt to the new system, learn the nuances and get a feel for the differences before they rolled out the system in larger districts. Moving from an analog system to fully digital came with many challenges, but as each agency adjusted, McNichol gained insight into how he could best train users and was able to inform adoption strategy for the next phase.
To McNichol’s delight, the officers he thought would be the biggest critics quickly realized what a valuable upgrade the new system was. “Now I couldn’t take those radios away from them if I tried,” he laughed.
Bringing Departments Together When It Matters Most
This rolling cutover method also allowed McNichol to first focus on in-building coverage. He recognized this may be a challenge and was critical for when responders received calls that took them into large apartment or business space complexes. Losing a connection somewhere between the vehicle, to an outdoor open range, or to an indoor suite is a common issue with other communication networks.
McNichol remembers the first instance when he felt truly confident and assured that integration was going well: When a multijurisdictional structure fire on the northern edge of the county required responders from multiple agencies to rush to the scene.
As responding units from other jurisdictions rolled on-scene, they were able to seamlessly connect using talk groups, enabling responders to easily communicate. The new Project 25 (P25) standards-based network from Harris delivered on its interoperability promise and, following the incident, multiple chiefs called McNichol to praise the performance of the new system.
Once agencies from the more rural parts of the county moved onto the network, McNichol shifted his focus to the largest and most populous area: Mobile. This major city and saltwater port was the final of the 37 total agencies making the change. Thankfully, by this point, McNichol knew exactly how to best integrate new technology and train users on the many benefits of the system.
Better System, Better Connection
Mobile County Communications District has gained a system that greatly improved two areas: coverage and clarity. Not only do all users enjoy an expanded and more reliable range of connection, but they can also hear one another better. Officers can now account for rural areas where they will be able to reach a dispatcher and won’t have to ask one another to repeat themselves over grainy reception.
“People are talking on the system more than they ever have before,” said McNichol, “It’s great to hear so many conversations that help each user become more aware of their communities and connect to one another when they need assistance. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Hope for Tomorrow’s Natural Disasters
With a focus on interoperability and widespread adoption across the country, the Harris P25 system will allow for robust and uncomplicated integration for outside help when a natural disaster occurs in Mobile County. As emergency responders and aid workers arrive in the area, they will now be able to easily connect to the network since many are already accustomed to Harris P25 from their own districts and because the system is more user friendly.
“While we certainly aren’t looking forward to our next major natural disaster, we can rest assured that everyone helping will be able to easily communicate,” said McNichol. “This was an important reason we felt an urgency in upgrading our system. You never know when the next thing will strike and you need to know you’re going to be able to communicate between different agencies from different areas. Thankfully, today I can confidently assure residents that the people helping them are well connected.”
Moving forward, the Mobile core will join a larger coalition with Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery. This will allow increased interoperability and diminished barriers of entry when officers respond across the state.