BEND, OR — All seven Deschutes County law enforcement unions have filed a joint complaint with local leaders, and one has filed a state complaint that a new digital radio system installed last July works so poorly it puts their lives — and those of the public they serve — at risk.
Put quite simply, their complaint states: “Our radios don’t work.”
“We write to you on behalf of hundreds of public safety professionals in the Deschutes County region. We are calling for immediate action to fix serious problems with our radio system — problems which are causing dire safety issues for both public safety professionals and members of our communities,” they said in a joint Dec. 7 letter provided to NewsChannel 21 this week.
The letter was addressed to law enforcement leaders, including Sheriff Shane Nelson and Police Chief Jim Porter, and signed by the presidents of the seven police and sheriff’s associations, as well as the ones representing Deschutes County 911 and Parole and Probation employees.
Among the problems: “Volume levels are low to the point that radio transmissions cannot be heard. Radio signals drop, even in populated areas, such that we can’t communicate over the radio or we miss key pieces of information. Radio transmissions are garbled to the point of being incomprehensible.”
It is so bad, they state, that in some cases, “Officers have had to repeat calling for a Code 3 (urgent) cover during foot and vehicle pursuits due to a radio failure.”
The letter noted that state law, the Oregon Safe Employment Act, “requires that our employers provide safe working environments and necessary equipment that ensures employee safety.”
That was the focus of a complaint they filed Dec. 28 with Oregon OSHA, which oversees safety in the workplace. In a Jan. 2 letter to the city, OSHA Bend Field Office Enforcement Manager Brian Halfman noted other issues that had arisen since the Dec. 7 letter to county law enforcement leaders.
On Dec. 27, a day before the police association filed the OSHA complaint, “The system completely went down for a period of time, with no contact with dispatch,” the letter noted. The agency gave the city 10 days to indicate what actions were taken or corrections had been made, “or that no hazard existed.” If there was no response, Halfman wrote, “an inspection will likely be conducted.”
NewsChannel 21’s Mike Allen spoke Wednesday with Deschutes County 911 Director Steve Reinke, who confirmed there had been problems with the new radio system.
He said the radio system was not properly configured by the provider, Harris, and the county put in several requests with the Florida firm but has had trouble getting a response.
Finally, Reinke said, Harris sent a team of engineers to Bend on Jan 2 to work on the problem.
The county is “giving Harris a chance to make the system perform,” Reinke said, but law enforcement members have expressed little confidence the company will fix the radio system, which the county’s fire departments are scheduled to switch to later this year.
Asked by NewsChannel 21 for a comment on the situation, Harris spokeswoman Natalie Ciao provided this company statement:
“Introducing a new, complex communications system creates opportunities for issues that aren’t expected. Every customer and system is unique, therefore challenges and solutions are different. A Harris team has been onsite in Deschutes County since early January.
“We will continue to dedicate the resources necessary to provide a state-of-the-art communication system for Oregon’s public safety communications users and will continue to work in partnership with the city and county to address challenges and optimize the system’s performance.”
Union leaders say the faulty system is putting the safety of the community at risk.
“We’re wasting man-hours, we’re wasting tax dollars on trying to get this system up and running when it should’ve been up and running in July, when this was implemented,” Bend Police Association President Leo Lotito said. “Again, it’s putting a safety risk on the officers, and it’s not just an everyday issue that we’re having. It’s on, sometimes, an hourly basis.”
Bend’s police chief echoed that view, recounting a time when an armed suspect officers believed to be suffering a mental breakdown was involved in a robbery.
“Our officers were trying to apprehend him, trying to safely apprehend him, and they were impeded by the fact that they couldn’t talk to each other,” Porter said. “They were not able to set up accord and bring him into custody as quickly as possible.
“So not only does it endanger the officers, it also endangers the public when we do not have the ability to coordinate rapidly and consistently, to get to where they need us.”
Deschutes County officials said they are optimistic about Harris’s ability to solve the problem.
“The safety of our troops out on the road and in the jail is paramount,” Sheriff Shane Nelson said. “But I’m very confident in the plan that Steve Reinke has outlined with Harris, and I look forward to having these radios work at their full potential.”
County Commissioner Tony DeBone echoed those thoughts, saying he’s confident the team Harris Corporation sent to Bend will be able to find a solution.
One sheriff’s deputy said he knows for a fact that Harris can make efficient systems.
“My son is a deputy here with the sheriff’s office,” Deschutes County Sheriff’s Association Vice President Steve Mangin said. “He was deployed to Afghanistan. Harris radio systems were used there, and he found from his experience that the equipment they were equipped with in Afghanistan was way more effective than what we’re having here. They didn’t have the issues in Afghanistan that we’re experiencing locally.”
Reinke said Harris already has figured out one fix. Some of its radios have been trying to reach a “non-optimal” site for transmission, like a radio in Bend trying to connect through Madras — a problem that he said is expected to be fixed by 1 p.m. Thursday.