9-1-1 dispatch chief proposes fix for Island Transit radio botch

The director of the I-COM emergency dispatch center has a proposal that may finally fix a communication problem that has dogged Island Transit buses for years.

During a presentation to the Island Transit board, Tom Shaughnessy and another I-COM employee revealed how the former administration of the transit agency, despite warnings, spent a $58,666 federal grant on a system that doesn’t work.

“It was up for just minutes before it was unplugged,” Shaughnessy said during an interview after his presentation.

“Truly, it was that fast.”

As a result, bus drivers communicate with the Island Transit’s dispatch center through a repeater radio system in operation since the agency’s beginning, though the agency has a grant to make the system work better.

The problem is that the system is neither reliable nor efficient, which would be especially problematic in the event of an emergency, according to Judy Hill, a radio tech at I-COM. After all, cellular service is also spotty in many areas of the county.

“Most of the dead spots are on the west and south sides of Camano and Whidbey islands,” she said.

Another limitation, she said, is the system has four “private lines” competing with each other on one frequency.

“You can have more than one group talking on the same frequency and they’re interfering with each other,” she said. “And they don’t even know it.

Several citizens complained about the safety concerns with spotty communications on buses. Shaughnessy told the board that the “extremely basic” system could cause a dangerous situation if communication isn’t getting through.

Operations Manager Shawn Harris agreed that the system can be a problem with as many as 40 buses in service at the same time.

Agencies in a five-county area were able to upgrade their communications system through a federal grant program available in 2011, Shaughnessy said.

Even though Island Transit was in serious need of an upgrade, the agency only received a small amount of money because it was one of the last entities to submit a request, Hill said.

Martha Rose was director of Island Transit at the time.

Island Transit hired an engineer who came up with a concept of improving the signal by putting up four receivers at different sites that worked through a “voice over Internet protocol” system, according to Hill.

The problem, she said, is the system didn’t have a way to differentiate the different audio signals coming in; as a result, the lines of static were mixed with clearer audio signals.

Shaughnessy said he warned I-COM at the time that the system wouldn’t work.

Likewise, Hill said Day Wireless, the company contracted to build the infrastructure, was so concerned that company officials wrote a letter to Island Transit forewarning about the problems.

Rose apparently trusted the engineer and brushed aside the warnings, Shaughnessy said.

The resulting upgrade made the system even worse and was immediately abandoned, he said.

Police and fire departments in the county — and soon the county public works department — upgraded to a simulcasting system managed by I-COM, which Hill said works very well.

“Simulcast is a spectrally efficient technology used to cover wide geography with a limited number of channels,” she said.

Hill said it would be the perfect technology for Island Transit. Shaughnessy proposed that Island Transit contract with I-COM to join in on the state-of-the-art system.

Island Transit Interim Director Ken Graska, however, said the discussion about joining with I-COM is something that will likely happen “down the road.”

The agency is planning on adding three repeaters to its system this fall in order to improve the signal and cut out dead spots, Graska said. But it won’t solve all the problems with the current system.

The project will cost $300,000. A federal grant will fund 60 percent of the cost, he said.

Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold was dubious about the need for a new radio system. He suggested that it would work fine if the operators only used it when it was absolutely necessary.

Other board members suggested that Shaughnessy and Graska continue discussions about the issue.