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N.M. county seeks $8.1M upgrade to emergency radio system

First responders in Santa Fe County are currently using an unsecure, aging system with many dead spots


By Maya Hilty
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE COUNTY, N.M. — Imagine you’re an emergency responder speeding down N.M. 14 toward a public safety threat or person in distress.

As you approach, your radio becomes unintelligible. Maybe it goes silent altogether. Minutes drag on without contact from dispatchers or other responders.

That isn’t a nightmare scenario but rather a reality for Santa Fe County firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, leaders of the two departments said.

“At that point, the officer is pretty much left on his own to deal with the situation, and that’s a safety issue,” said Sheriff Adan Mendoza.

“Communication is one of the most important aspects of public safety. That’s how we know where we need to be and what is happening” — so communication lapses are, to say the least, “problematic,” he said in an interview.

The county’s aging VHF radio system, which “is incredibly close to reaching the end of its serviceable life,” has posed growing problems for first responders, said Fire Chief Jacob Black.

That’s why he is “anxiously awaiting” an $8.1 million upgrade to the state’s higher-tech, encrypted system, called the Digital Trunked Radio System, or Project 25. The system is owned and managed by the state Department of Information Technology.

Santa Fe County could move to the state system in spring 2025, contingent on the county finding about $5 million in additional funds for the project, consultant Brad Barber told county commissioners in March.

One change would be that communications on the state system are encrypted, meaning the public can’t listen to responders talking. Currently, Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputy and firefighter communications are public because encryption is not possible on the existing VHF system.

Barber, Black and Mendoza all posed encryption as an advancement to prevent “bad actors” from easily accessing public safety communications.

“You have to realize that there are some people out there that listen to radio communications for nefarious reasons,” Mendoza said, citing as an example deputies who have arrested criminals carrying radio scanners, ostensibly to help them avoid arrest.

“I feel like law-abiding citizens should be allowed to listen to the traffic, but ... I think the safety of officers and the public outweighs that need,” he said.

The county has considered an upgrade for years.

In 2017, the county collaborated with the city to hire consultants from Fairfax, Va. -based Federal Engineering Inc. to evaluate the area’s radio systems. At that time, consultants provided a range of options to improve the county system.

Five years later, the county hired the firm to update its analysis, at which point consultants recommended Santa Fe County move to the state’s digital system, said Barber, who is Federal Engineering’s vice president. The existing system — which last received a significant upgrade around 2010, Black said — is so old it is no longer “fully supported” by its manufacturer, Barber said.

Though the county has considered upgrades “several times” over the years, “it’s very expensive,” Mendoza said.

In 2023, the County Commission set aside $2.5 million for the project and then requested $5.2 million from the state during the recent legislative session but only received $425,000.

The county did recently receive a $1.5 million grant from the state Fire Marshal’s Office for the radio upgrades, but a significant funding gap remains. Public safety leaders anticipate requesting another $5.2 million in the county budget for the 2025 fiscal year to cover the project’s full cost, Barber said.

The new technology, which includes new equipment both at radio tower sites and in county first responders’ vehicles, will bring a range of benefits.

One is a reversal of “significant declines in the quality and reliability” of communications, Black described.

VHF communications have become increasingly hard to hear because even “things that seem rather generic and non-threatening, like LED lighting, raise the noise floor for communications,” Barber said.

Due to the system’s age, radio tones frequently go in and out, only relaying half of a message or failing to transmit messages at all, Black said. Black gave as an example a recent call in the Tesuque area where firefighters were on a scene within eyesight of each other but were not receiving each other’s messages over the radio.

The Fire Department has been relying on “stopgaps” such as use of an app that sends 911 calls to cellphones and 24/7 monitoring of the radio by department administrators to jump in when it becomes evident responders in the field cannot hear messages over the radio, Black said.

Moving to the state system will also allow county responders to talk with other agencies that occasionally respond to the same calls.

Most public safety agencies are “migrating towards” the state system as “the predominant standard for public safety communications,” Barber said: About 50 agencies in New Mexico, including the city of Santa Fe, and Sandoval and Bernalillo counties, already use the state system.

Currently, sheriff’s deputies cannot communicate with Santa Fe police officers because the digital and VHF systems “just can’t communicate with each other,” Mendoza said.

Similarly, firefighters in southern Santa Fe County cannot talk over the radio with firefighters elsewhere in the county because, due to the system’s limitations, they must operate on different radio channels, Black said. That means responders heavily rely upon dispatchers to communicate, which increases the chance they miss “critical information,” Black said — “not because it hasn’t been communicated but we just don’t hear it due to the challenges of our current system.”

Moving to the state system will also decrease the number of “dead zones” throughout the county where responders cannot receive any communications.

The county has four towers that transmit radio signals, in Tesuque, Nambé, Edgewood and east of Madrid. Once on the state system, that network will be bolstered by other agencies’ infrastructure, Mendoza said.

The new technology also enables radio users to leverage Wi-Fi and mobile wireless broadband coverage on commercial networks to improve communications in places like schools and large commercial buildings, where radios may not work well.

Overall, the move will be a “game changer” for public safety, Mendoza added.

“We get by with the VHF system; we have for years,” he said. “But there are some gaps there, and I think that’s what this new [Project] 25 is going to alleviate.”

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