Local emergency response departments are implementing a new digital radio system that cannot be heard over a traditional analog scanner.
Since 2003, the Arkansas State Police Department has been obtaining digital radios through the federal government to implement the Arkansas Wireless Information Network, AWIN, system for purposes of emergency management and better communications safety. Soon, every county in the state will obtain these new communications systems through federal government grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
Fulton County has received over $750,000 in grants from the DHS since 2003 and will be receiving another $40,000 worth of radio equipment in the next four weeks. This means that soon some calls to officers and emergency personnel over the radio will be unavailable for those still using the analog frequency system.
As of now, according to Penny Robuw the director of the AWIN Program for Arkansas, every county already has digital radios being used at command centers including the sheriff's, fire chief's and hospital's.
"The system is moving towards a computer system just like everything else is," Robuw explained.
Salem Police Chief Al Roork said there are 15 of these radios already located in Fulton County and explained how these new digital radios will differ from the ones used for over 20 years.
"The analog scanners use VHF and UHF frequencies ... The scanners that people have now are designed to scan for these frequencies," Roork said. "The analog scanners will not be able to pick up the digital radios and the new digital scanners will cost several times more than what an analog scanner costs."
Prices for the digital scanners can range from $1,000 to $5,000 and throughout the state of Arkansas, departments have spent almost $500 billion to implement the new system according to Roork.
Capabilites to communicate with state and federal departments is an important part of the new system and one of the primary reasons for local systems to gain the new technology.
According to the AWIN Web site, the system is, "A multipurpose program to leverage new and existing wireless resources to create a statewide interoperable wireless communications system for emergency responders and Arkansas public service entities."
In other words, these radios ensure more efficient communication between the different levels of law enforcement and emergency management in case of any natural or manmade emergency. Through the Department of Information Systems, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and the Arkansas State Police, more than $100 million has been provided to obtain a system worth $175 million. This includes all Arkansas counties being digital radio capable by August of this year and a backup satellite system forecasted to be available by August of 2009 according to the AWIN Web site.
Chief Roork said that the systems will also be beneficial in protecting the safety of citizens, ensuring criminals are not aware of police activity and will save the county funds for maintaining radio towers.
"We recognize the importance of the public knowing what's going on, they can help us police our counties ... but we run into situations a lot where we need to say something that we don't want others to hear," Roork explained.
Roork described one specific circumstance in which the digital radios would be used over the analog radios. A citizen calls in a criminal activity, and in order to fully inform the officer on duty of the situation, police may have to divulge the citizen's name and that is not something the general public should be able to hear, Roork said.
"Also, with a lot of portable scanners, people who intend to break the law will be listening to what we're doing," Roork added.
Because the new digital systems will use state provided towers, the cost to maintain radio towers will be greatly diminished Roork said.
Roork wanted to ensure the public that they, "don't intend to discontinue the analog system, however, at times it will be necessary to implement the system."