Police station surrounded by temporary fencing
Since the Police Department moved from 1575 Massachusetts Ave. to their temporary headquarters at 173 Bedford St. last month, the public safety radio communication system has suffered repeated problems such as dropped calls and delayed transmissions that are actively interfering with officers’ and firefighters’ day-to-day work and safety. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

Lexington’s recently approved new police station project includes many much-needed infrastructure upgrades. It does not, however, include funding for a new radio communication system. 

But at Monday’s Select Board meeting, Lexington Police Chief Mike McLean, Fire Chief Derek Sencabaugh and Public Facilities Director Mike Cronin requested $800,000 to overhaul the current decades-old system. They explained that since the Police Department moved into their temporary headquarters at 173 Bedford St. last month, this system has suffered repeated problems such as dropped calls and delayed transmissions that are actively interfering with officers’ and firefighters’ day-to-day work and safety.

While Select Board members unanimously approved the funding requested, they decided to authorize most of it from the Town’s Reserve Fund, which means that per the Town’s established process, the Appropriation Committee will also have to vote to approve the funding before the authorization is complete. The Appropriation Committee is scheduled to discuss and vote on the funding on Tuesday.

Cronin explained that this funding request comes after radio technicians have repeatedly attempted to repair the existing system over the past month without success, leading them to conclude that this significant investment in new equipment would be required to resolve the issues. 

But even if the Appropriation Committee votes in favor of the funding authorization on Tuesday, this is not a quick fix: Cronin anticipates that factoring in ongoing supply chain challenges, this new equipment will take six to eight months to arrive. As a result, Select Board members also discussed that the Town may need supplemental state or federal support of some kind in that interim.

The radio problems on the ground

For radio communication, Lexington’s police and fire departments have “two stand-alone systems, but we share a lot of the same infrastructure,” Sencabaugh explained at the meeting. 

One key point of connection is the 911 Dispatch Console, which operates out of the Police Department but coordinates emergency responses with both police officers and firefighters depending on the nature of the call. “Dispatch is the heartbeat of the communications system for the Town, public safety-wise,” McLean said in an interview.

The departments also “share receiver and transmitter sites around town,” Cronin wrote in an email. In most of the equipment at these sites, the fire and police departments rely on the same antenna and cabling systems for radio transmissions between the Dispatch Center and needed fire and police units. 

After the police moved to their temporary headquarters, both departments began experiencing problems with radio communications.

For instance, when a transformer exploded in the Town Center last month – the week after the Police Department moved into their temporary headquarters – radio drop-offs delayed Lexington firefighters from telling other towns where assistance was needed, Sencabaugh said at the meeting. “We didn’t have an ability to call out over our radios” to communities in the METROFIRE District inside the Route 128 perimeter, he said: “The delay…got to the point where the coast community had no idea who was even trying to call for assistance that night.” In the end, the department had to rely on phone calls to coordinate aid from other communities.

The Police Department is experiencing slightly worse radio issues than the Fire Department, McLean said. At the meeting, he explained that “we’ve been experiencing laps[es] and dropoffs in radio transmissions on a shiftly basis.” Sometimes, that means dispatching officers multiple times in response to a call to ensure officers receive the dispatch order. But there have been more serious situations, too: In one instance, a couple of weeks ago, McLean said an officer in a physical altercation had been unable to call for backup on his radio, and had been forced to resort to pulling out his cell phone.

McLean clarified that while radio issues are taking place on a daily basis, “I don’t want to give the impression that it’s completely dead air.” Issues don’t affect every transmission, and when they do inhibit transmissions, sometimes that just means a six-second transmission drops off for the last second, or the police have to place a call a couple of times before getting through, he explained.

“Everything we do relies on our radios –  both police and fire – and finding that we’re having these drop zones in different areas, it’s just becoming too much to overcome at this point,” Sencabaugh said.

The chiefs reiterated that they were asking for funding to overhaul the system after attempting shorter-term fixes over the past month and realizing that “there isn’t a temporary fix out there,” as McLean put it. “The move kind of kicked this to the next level of us seeing how bad the system is…We don’t want to risk the safety of the community or any of the public safety staff on the street.”

An equipment mismatch “from an age standpoint”

The Town spent a couple of years planning to move the radio equipment from 1575 Massachusetts Ave. to 173 Bedford St. “For the last two years, we have had a series of technicians – what we’ve referred to as experts in the field – looking at all of our equipment, identifying processes and steps, and identifying pieces of equipment to make the move,” Cronin said at the meeting. As one step of this move, the Town placed temporary equipment on top of Cary Memorial Building. 

But the Town did not realize that, in disconnecting the radio equipment at the original police station and moving it to 173 Bedford St., “our technologies, from an age standpoint, wouldn’t match,” Cronin said. They essentially had to transform the analog technology used by the old police station system, run on copper lines, to a digital system operated on Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) lines present at 173 Bedford St.

In 2018, the Fire Department moved into the same temporary headquarters on Bedford Street and did not experience any issues with its radio equipment. But the Police Department includes a key communications centerpiece that the Fire Department does not: the Dispatch Center. Now, most of the radio issues are occurring when officers and firefighters try to communicate with Dispatch and vice versa, McLean said.

Additionally, the Police Department’s radio challenges are slightly worse than the Fire Department’s because while the departments share radio infrastructure, they operate on two different frequencies. Though both systems use fairly old radio technology, the Police Department’s frequency works on an older technological model than the Fire Department’s frequency. 

The experts who have worked on the system over the past two years have tried to trouble-shoot the radio issues as they’ve arisen, Cronin said, and they also brought Verizon on board to explore how their lines could improve transmission. With a few smaller interventions, “we got it better, but it’s not where it needs to be,” he said, and public safety staff have continued to experience issues this week.

Preceding the police move, Sencabaugh said that the departments have had capital improvement projects in the works since about 2015 to keep the radio system running due to its age. But even when they add equipment, they have been forced to buy obsolete equipment – because “the new equipment isn’t backwards-compatible at all.” Now, spending Town money to replace defunct equipment with old, barely working equipment would mean throwing away money in the long or even medium term; none of the temporary fixes can be incorporated into any new equipment eventually introduced. That’s another reason to go ahead and modernize the Town’s communications system now, with this $800,000 expenditure, he said.

Where should the funding come from?

Select Board members all agreed that as a matter of public safety, the Town needed to fund equipment upgrades as soon as possible. But the chiefs had requested American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, or pandemic aid, as the source of the $800,000, which Select Board members decided was not the appropriate source for the brunt of this expenditure.

“I really believe that the ARPA funds are designed to assist our residents and businesses recover from this pandemic, and we are not out of the woods there,” Member Mark Sandeen said.

Member Suzie Barry noted that while she also did not want this funded primarily by ARPA funds, “you need to also think about public safety has been there through COVID, and continues to be there through COVID – and they can’t be there for our residents through COVID if they don’t have a communication system.” For this reason, she said she would support a small expenditure from ARPA if needed to supplement another funding source.

Chair Jill Hai noted that this is the kind of project that funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could support in the future, but said that this project was too time-critical for the Town to wait for that funding to become available.

Town Meeting would typically vote to approve this kind of capital expenditure. But due to the urgency of the required fixes, the Select Board determined that the expenditure should come from the capital Reserve Fund, which is set aside as part of each year’s budget for “extraordinary and unforeseen expenses,” according to Assistant Town Manager for Finance Carolyn Kosnoff.

However, the Reserve Fund for the Fiscal Year 2023 budget only includes $750,000. Kosnoff said at the meeting that it would make her “a little uncomfortable going through the rest of the year with zero reserves.” The Select Board unanimously voted to authorize up to that amount from the reserve, and up to $50,000 from ARPA funds to reach the $800,000 needed. But, they also unanimously approved adding to November’s Special Town Meeting “a request to appropriate an appropriate amount to the Reserve Fund in replenishment” so that the Town would not be left without any reserve funds for the entire year.

Though the equipment needed technically has a total price tag closer to $700,000 than $800,000, Cronin explained that he typically includes an approximate 10% contingency in requests since “you always run into some equipment issues [and] shortages,” which can result in unexpected equipment supplements and price changes. This is especially important given the six-month delay on the equipment arrival, he added.

If the Appropriation Committee authorizes the use of the reserve funds at Tuesday’s meeting, the Town would order the new equipment on Wednesday, Cronin wrote in an email. 

During Monday’s meeting, Select Board members discussed the possibility of the Appropriation Committee reviewing this funding request even sooner. But because the committee had less than 48 hours’ notice of a new agenda item before their meeting this week, Town Counsel determined that adding this agenda item on such short notice risked violating the Open Meeting Law. 

Short-term next steps

The six- to eight-month delay in equipment arrival was especially unsettling to Select Board members.

“I’m very uncomfortable with that six-month interim,” Hai said at the meeting. “It’s unsettling to me that it’s happening now, but another six months is just too much risk.”

Barry asked that the police and fire departments investigate whether the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) or federal counterpart (FEMA) could offer any supplemental equipment in the six-month interim before the new equipment arrives.

In an interview yesterday, McLean said that Sencabaugh had contacted MEMA shortly after the Select Board’s meeting. Police, Fire, Facilities, IT and radio partners will meet with MEMA representatives on Monday to discuss the best way to move forward, McLean said.

“We were talking here a lot about technology and everything, but the bottom line is there is a public safety factor here for everyone,” Barry said. “And it’s not just people who work in public safety, and police and fire – it’s also a public safety factor for our community, for our residents and people passing through it.”

She added, “I find it incredibly unfortunate that the ball got dropped and we didn’t know this was going to be a problem” prior to the move of the Dispatch Center to the temporary headquarters.

Vice Chair Doug Lucente said that while he appreciated members’ comments along these lines, “unforeseen is unforeseen, and at this point it’s water under the bridge. We could have had 10 meetings about this and still had it unforeseen.”

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