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Pa. County Needs Millions to Prevent 911 Radio Hijacking

Delaware County’s outdated emergency radio system is susceptible to hackings, which prevent timely police response and deteriorate public trust. But updating the system could cost as much as $50 million.

(TNS) — The call over the police radio in Chester, Pa., last year came in clear with a shocking and terrifying message. A voice spat out racial slurs and warnings, at one point threatening to kill the officer on patrol and his entire family.

The transmission was not from an authorized user, typically a uniformed officer or dispatcher: It was from a resident keyed into Delaware County's emergency radio system using a cheap, handheld radio available online.

In another hijacking of the aging radio system,two people challenged each other to a fight, successfully distracting police, as intended, away from an area that officers were investigating for drug activity.

Beyond impeding police investigations and fire department rescues, these pirate broadcasts run the risk of causing outrage among residents who could mistakenly believe the toxic language is coming from a real police officer.

Officials say they are symptoms of a county radio infrastructure that hasn't been updated since the 1970s, with the potential for disastrous consequences: In 2016, a Folcroft officer wounded in the line of duty couldn't get his calls for help transmitted to the county's emergency dispatchers.

After years of discussion and study, Delaware County last month received a $4.6 million grant from the state to put toward overhauling the system, the last in the Philadelphia region to use weaker, outdated signals that are often interrupted by television broadcasts or subject to "dead zones" where communication is disrupted.

The funding helps, but it still falls far short of the $50 million that Emergency Services Director Timothy Boyce says is needed to shore up the system to safe, modern standards.

"The consequences for someone saying racist or threatening things over the police radio and the community not trusting that it wasn't an officer are enormous," Boyce said in a recent interview. "I really think that is what took a project that was a business decision to a crisis in the eyes of state leaders. And if we don't address this today, we own the consequences."

The push to modernize the radio system began in 2019 — three years into Boyce's tenure as head of the department — when the County Council commissioned a study examining the gaps in the system and the potential cost of upgrading it. That study yielded the $50 million price tag: $25 million to purchase new radios for every police officer, medic, and firefighter in the county, and another $25 million in infrastructure costs to build new radio towers or upgrade existing ones.

In 2020, armed with that information, the county applied for and received a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant from Gov. Tom Wolf's office for $1.6 million. Last month the county received a second grant from the program, bringing the total funding to $6.2 million to put toward infrastructure upgrades.

Additionally, the county spent about $3 million buying new radios for the roughly 1,200 sworn police officers in the county, according to Boyce. But how the county will close the funding gap for the overall project remains a topic of debate.

Delaware County got into this position gradually, ignoring or avoiding changing the system as governmental mandates led other counties, including Philadelphia, Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks, to switch their radio systems to frequencies with digital encryption to avoid competing with newer, higher-powered television broadcasts.

Because Delaware County fell behind, its aging system is often disrupted by TV signals from as far away as Boston or North Carolina, when the right weather patterns line up, according to Boyce.

The system as it exists is a "patchwork" of radio towers that the county inherited when individual police departments abandoned the local radio rooms common in the early 20th century and moved the operations to the county's Emergency Services building in Middletown.

What's caused the delay in modernizing such a crucial system?

"I think there was this hubris that 'We are the best and we have the best system,'" Boyce said. "I am not happy to be the guy that's come here and said, this doesn't work, but I will be very honest about where we're failing to be the best that we can be."

That hubris has had severe consequences for some first responders.

In the 2016 incident in Folcroft, Officer Chris Dorman was responding to a call to investigate a drug deal when he was ambushed by a gunman and shot multiple times. His call for help never made it to the 911 center — the system had rebooted right as Dorman was making that call. Luckily, another Folcroft officer was nearby, heard the local broadcast on his own radio, and sped to the scene to help Dorman.

From 2016: As officer screamed 'I'm shot,' Delco's 911 computers failed

But Folcroft Deputy Police Chief Christopher Eiserman, the second vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27, said that close call was eye-opening for his colleagues.

"We know the system comes with a big price tag, but can you really put a price tag on the people who serve the county?" Eiserman said. "It's expensive, but we know it needs to be done, to protect first responders and protect residents."

Dorman's case is an extreme example, but Eiserman said daily operations are also impeded by the issues with the system. In Chester, for example, officers have no way of preventing enterprising criminals from listening in on their broadcasts, and are sometimes interrupted when on patrol by blaring music intended to distract them.

"It's a huge safety hazard, because if we're going to serve a warrant, and we give dispatcher our location, we're tipping our hat that we're coming," Eiserman said. "So if they want to run, they have that lead time."

Delaware County's firefighters are also affected by the gaps in the system.

Chester Fire Department Commissioner William Rigby said his firefighters have run into issues in known "problem areas" where weak signal strength has made it difficult to reach dispatchers while on scene. It hasn't led to any major obstacles yet, but it's a liability he is not comfortable with.

"If I get a firefighter in trouble, a radio is a critical piece of protective equipment that we can't skimp on," Rigby said. "Oftentimes our guys need to go into deteriorating conditions, and heaven forbid I get somebody in trouble. We need to have this equipment work. It's critical."

Boyce agrees. Bids for engineers to design and overhaul the radio system are set to be submitted later this month, and the county is dedicated, he said, to acting as quickly as possible to modernizing this lifeline for its first responders.

"I don't want to use the glib line that you can't put a price on public safety, but you can value what people are doing out there," Boyce said. "We can't forget this is an information-sharing business. The most critical job we do is to give our first responders help, and we give them help when a resident needs help."

(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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