A traffic stop along a lonely road. A drag-out fight with a suspect. A foot chase through a dark alley.
Every day Las Vegas cops find themselves alone in dangerous situations where the radios on their hips are the only lifeline to fellow officers.
Many officers consider their radios the most important tools they carry, which is why beat cops throughout the Metropolitan Police Department are grumbling about the agency’s new $40 million radio system.
Unveiled last summer, the Desert Sky digital system expanded channel capacities, enabled advanced data communications for in-car computers, and added other features that were unavailable on the agency’s aging analog system.
Since then, the Police Department has worked with the radio provider, Harris Corp., to fix bugs, dead zones and other issues as they came up. But while most problems have been fixed, the cops who rely on the radios aren’t satisfied, and some even worry the radios’ lack of performance could get one of them hurt or killed.
When the topic came up at a recent patrol briefing, the room filled with groans, eye rolls and "best radio in the world" sarcasm. At times, cops frustrated by their radios have turned to cellphones to call dispatchers. Some officers joke that two tin cans and string might work better.
"Nobody’s happy with it because, for police work, it does not work," said officer Laurie Bisch, a patrol veteran and two-time candidate for sheriff.
The Police Department began looking at updating its radio system about 2003. Its analog system was nearing maximum capacity, and the agency was expanding along with Southern Nevada’s population boom.
Besides having an almost limitless capacity, the new system also would allow for easier interoperability, or the ability for public safety agencies to talk to each other, which was being pushed by the Federal Communications Commission.
"We knew we had to make a change, but we also knew it wouldn’t be an easy one," said Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who was undersheriff at the time.
The Police Department contracted with M/A-COM to design and build its new system, called OpenSky by the company.
Many other public safety agencies committed to OpenSky, and many have been left disappointed as their systems have been dogged by performance and reliability problems.
In early 2009, the state of New York cited technology problems when it terminated a $2 billion contract with M/A-COM to build a statewide communications system.
Lancaster County, Pa., dumped its OpenSky contract in 2008 after spending about 11 years and $14 million on the project.
And in Milwaukee, police have experienced system outages and glitches in the past year with their OpenSky system, prompting criticism by the officers’ union and an investigation by a city alderman.
As the Desert Sky project moved along, the Police Department had problems with engineering support from M/A-COM, Gillespie said. That changed once Harris purchased the company in 2009, he said.
Since the system went live in July 2010, Harris has worked to fix problems, including programming software updates for the radios and adding antenna sites to eliminate dead zones, said Capt. Herb Baker, project manager for the past three years.
During that time, the agency has collected complaints from officers, tested radios in the field and taken other steps to identify problems, most of which have been solved, he said.
But some problems remain, including dead spots, volume disparities and dropped voice transmissions. Baker’s team will continue working with Harris to fix those.
"It’s not performing as I believe it should be. We’ve got a lot of work in front of us," Gillespie said, adding that the old system had its own set of problems for cops in the field.
Some of the issues with the new system aren’t technical.
Officers must get used to the new equipment and differences in how it works compared with their old radios, Baker said. That takes education, training and patience, he said.
A big sticking point for officers is the system’s inability to have more than one person talking on a channel at a time.
With the analog system, an officer in trouble could get on the radio even if another officer was already talking. The fellow officers might not have understood what either was saying, but they could tell someone needed help and respond, Bisch said.
Under the digital system, if one officer is talking on the channel, no one else can get through. And an officer in the field might have only a few frantic seconds to use the radio before starting a foot chase or grappling with a suspect.
"You may only get one shot, and I would not trust my life to this radio system," Bisch said.
The radios have an emergency button that will override all other radio traffic, but it hasn’t always worked right and requires cops to learn when and how to use it.
Las Vegas Police Protective Association head Chris Collins knows most of the 2,800 rank-and-file officers in his union don’t like the new radios.
When the system went online, Collins would get as many as 15 complaints a day. Those complaints have tailed off, but that doesn’t mean the system is working like it should, he said.
"Is it a good system? The reality is no, probably not," Collins said. "You either hear it crystal clear or you hear nothing. There’s nothing in the middle."
Patrol Sgt. Mike Dailey, a 28-year department veteran, understands the frustration with the new radios.
Cops want to pick up their microphones, hit the button and be able to talk immediately, not get beeped at, which is what happens if someone is already on the channel, he said.
Dailey, who recalls a time in the 1980s when officers didn’t have enough radios to go around, tells his squad that the radio issue could mean not getting backup for some situations, so they must be prepared to go it alone. The radio won’t save them, he said.
The veteran cop knows the Police Department isn’t going to scrap Desert Sky after all of the time and money it has sunk into the system, so the officers might as well adapt to it, Dailey said.
"We know there are problems, and we know that we’re married to it. There’s no divorce."
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at email@example.com or 702-383-0281.