Police radios go out, but backup plan works

By Rebecca Catalanello, Times Staff Writer
Published March 5, 2008

TAMPA - Tampa police resorted to emergency communications conditions Tuesday after a contractor cut a Verizon cable that affected officers' ability to talk to dispatch for more than six hours.

Radios were out from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said, forcing the agency to switch into the same communications mode it would be required to use during a massive power outage such as a hurricane.

Patrol officers in all districts were required to pair up for their safety.

Though most officers could hear dispatchers speaking to them, police had to respond to dispatchers with text, using the laptops in their cruisers, McElroy said.

In some pockets of the city, such as in New Tampa and the southernmost tip of Tampa near MacDill Air Force Base, officers could neither hear nor respond to dispatch, McElroy said, and were entirely dependent on the laptops for direction.

While workers sought to repair the damaged line - or route the agency's communications system to another temporary line - the city's technology team began setting up what McElroy described as "remote communications sites" to improve radio communications.

But before they could roll out the new communications sites, the problem was solved.

Despite the inconvenience, McElroy said the agency wasn't aware of any significant problems as a result of the communications crisis. What might have been a worse situation was mitigated by the fact that officers are practiced at using their computers to stay connected.

"Thankfully, they utilize these laptops on a daily basis," McElroy said.

TPD is in the process of purchasing a new $20-million communications systemthat will solve some of the problems that happened Tuesday, she said.

On the positive side:

"We have an emergency communications plan in place for a natural disaster," McElroy said, "and we rolled it out today and put it into action, and it worked."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or 813 226-3383.