The new Pima County public safety radio system will help first responders talk to each other when emergencies are large enough to require people from many departments, or when situations are near the boundaries of two public safety departments.

The Pima County Wireless Integrated Network, or PCWIN, allows dozens of local public safety agencies such as police and fire departments, private ambulance companies and hospitals to use one radio system and communicate with one another.

In the past, each department had a public safety radio system, which made it difficult to communicate with other first responders in an emergency, said John Voorhees, executive director of PCWIN.

911 Exposed Issues
After the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, it was clear communication problems prevented coordinated response to large disasters, Voorhees said.

"They recognized that police forces and fire forces from different agencies were not able to communicate effectively on the same radio network,” he said.

But those problems were not just New York problems, said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. Locally, two first responders from different departments could not talk to each other on their dispatch radios, he said.

Local Communication Problems Experienced
In 2008, radio problems affected the response to a man with a gun.

Tucson Police Officer Erik Hite was killed chasing the suspect across town, and across city limits, into areas the Sheriff’s Department would normally respond to.

The network was still being created in 2011 when the Jan. 8 shooting also highlighted the need for many public safety agencies to have the ability to talk to each other.

“Oro Valley was one of the first to respond, it was somewhere close to the city of Tucson borders. The Pima County Sheriff was there, fire districts from Golder Ranch, Northwest, Rural/Metro, all of them kind of converged in one area at the shooting site," Voorhees said.

That day, six fire chiefs sat together in a pickup truck, trading radios to volley information among departments, Voohees said.

“When you have disparate radio frequencies, all of these people are transmitting that information to their forces, and their folks on different radio systems and not able to communicate with each other," he said.

Solution proposed
“We had several discussions and meetings in our organization about the problem of communication and decided the solution was a county-wide system where law enforcement, medical people and fire could all communicate with each other and with their different organizations within," Dupnik said.

Voters approved funding for PCWIN as part of the 2004 bond program, a massive plan for public projects paid for by a taxpayer loan. It required new and upgraded radio towers and buying new radio hardware, Voorhees said.

The system went live this month, and has already been put to use.

"We’ve already used it on I-19 to coordinate multiple agencies including Rural/Metro, Tohono O’odham Fire Department, our fire department on a rather significant major vehicle accident out there on the very first day that we went live in the new system," said Doug Chappell, chief of the Drexel Heights Fire Department.

Then, a home invasion in Oro Valley required the town police department to coordinate response between its officers, the regional SWAT team, the county bomb squad and a fire district.

“And the ability for our officers and the sheriff’s deputies and the firefighters from Golder Ranch to be side by side and to speak to each other was huge," Daniel Sharp, chief of the Oro Valley Police Department.

Funding, Participation
The project used $93 million in local tax funding, which will be paid back in property taxes. It also relied on about $10 million in federal grants. The funding paid for new and upgraded radio towers, a new county 911 dispatch center, a portion of Tucson's new 911 dispatch center, a new central operations center to coordinate response to disasters and emergencies and new radios.

More than 30 Pima County fire departments, police departments, ambulance companies and local government agencies are on the system. The town of Marana, and the Tucson Airport Authority opted not to participate. They have upgraded their radio systems, and Voorhees said they may be able to get them integrated to the new system with contracts between the departments and the radio network.