Delaware County’s outdated emergency radio system is prone to hacking and interference. It will cost millions to modernize it.

The police radio call in Chester last year was clear with a shocking and terrifying message. A voice spat out racist slurs and warnings, threatening at one point to kill the officer on patrol and his entire family.

The transmission was not from an authorized user, usually a uniformed officer or dispatcher: it was from a resident who entered the Delaware County emergency radio system using an available inexpensive portable radio. in line.

In another hijacking of the aging radio system, two people clashed in a scuffle, managing to distract police, as expected, away from an area officers were investigating for drug-related activity.

Beyond hampering police investigations and rescues by firefighters, these pirate broadcasts risk provoking the indignation of residents who might mistakenly believe that the toxic language comes from a real police officer.

Officials say these are symptoms of a county radio infrastructure that has not been updated since the 1970s, with the potential for dire consequences: In 2016, a Folcroft officer injured in the while performing his duties was unable to forward his calls for help to the county emergency dispatchers.

After years of discussion and study, Delaware County last month received a $ 4.6 million state grant to spend on overhauling the system, the latest in the Philadelphia area to use weaker, obsolete signals often interrupted by television broadcasts or subjected to “dead zones” where communication is disrupted.

The funding is helping, but it’s still a long way from the $ 50 million that Emergency Services Director Timothy Boyce says is needed to strengthen the system to modern and safe standards.

“The consequences for someone saying racist or threatening things on police radio and the community not believing they are not an officer are huge,” Boyce said in a recent interview. . “I really think that’s what brought a project that was a business decision to a crisis in the eyes of heads of state. And if we don’t fix it today, we will bear the consequences. “

The effort to modernize the radio system began in 2019 – three years after Boyce began his tenure as head of the department – when the Departmental Council commissioned a study examining the shortcomings of the system and the potential cost of upgrading it. This study yielded the price of $ 50 million: $ 25 million to buy new radios for every police officer, doctor and firefighter in the county, and an additional $ 25 million in infrastructure costs to build new radio towers or upgrade. existing ones.

In 2020, armed with this information, the county requested and received a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program Grant from Governor 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 for infrastructure upgrades.

In addition, the county spent about $ 3 million to buy new radios for the county’s roughly 1,200 sworn-in police officers, according to Boyce. But how the county will close the funding gap for the entire project remains a matter of debate.

Delaware County entered this position gradually, ignoring or avoiding changing the system as government mandates led other counties, including Philadelphia, Chester, Montgomery and Bucks, to switch their radio systems to frequencies with digitally encryption for avoid competing with the newer, more powerful ones. TV shows.

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

The system as it exists is a “patchwork” of radio towers that the county inherited when various police departments abandoned the mainstream local radio rooms in the early 20th century and moved operations to the Police Department building. county emergency in Middletown.

What caused the delay in modernizing such a crucial system?

“I think there was that pride that ‘we’re the best and we’ve got the best system,’” Boyce said. “I’m not happy to be the guy who came here and said it wasn’t working, but I’ll be very honest about where we fail to be the best we can be.”

This pride had serious consequences for some first responders.

In the 2016 Folcroft Incident, Constable Chris Dorman was responding to a call to investigate a drug case when he was ambushed by a gunman and shot and killed several times. His call for help never reached the 911 center – the system had restarted just as Dorman made the call. Fortunately, another Folcroft officer was nearby, heard the local broadcast on his own radio, and rushed to the scene to help Dorman.

READ MORE: From 2016: “As the officer yelled ‘I’m getting shot’, Delco’s 911 computers failed. “

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

“We know the system comes at a high price, but can you really put a price on the people who serve the county? Eiserman said. “It’s expensive, but we know it has to be done, to protect first responders and protect residents.”

Dorman’s case is an extreme example, but Eiserman said day-to-day operations are also hampered by issues with the system. In Chester, for example, officers have no way of preventing enterprising criminals from listening to their shows and are sometimes interrupted while patrolling with loud music meant to distract them.

“This is a huge security hazard because if we have to execute a warrant and we give our location to the dispatcher, we take our hat off as we arrive,” Eiserman said. “So if they want to run, they have that deadline. “

Delaware County firefighters are also affected by deficiencies in the system.

Chester Fire Department Commissioner William Rigby said his firefighters had encountered problems in known “problem areas” where low signal strength made it difficult to access dispatchers at the scene. It hasn’t resulted in any major obstacles yet, but it’s a handicap he isn’t comfortable with.

“If I’m in trouble with a firefighter, a radio is a critical piece of protective gear that we can’t skimp on,” Rigby said. “A lot of times our guys have to be in deteriorating conditions, and God forbid, I’m in trouble with someone. We have to get this equipment to work. This is critical.

Boyce agrees. Offers from engineers to design and overhaul the radio system are expected to be submitted later this month, and the county is committed, he said, to act as quickly as possible to modernize this lifeline for its residents. first responders.

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