Going digital: getting local agencies online

AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - The Amarillo Police Department and Amarillo Fire Department have switched to a new digital communications system which is expected to improve the capabilities of emergency services.

While Amarillo Police and Amarillo Fire are the first to be online with the new system, the plan doesn't stop there.

The goal is to have every department in the area online and communicating.

Fire, police and the city said this system is crystal clear and designed to give universal coverage across the City of Amarillo and surrounding counties.

"They can count on their radio reaching back and reaching back to dispatch, where with the old system that may not have been available to them," said Kevin Starbuck, Assistant City Manager for the City of Amarillo. "They may not have been able to count on that."

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"It's going to protect officers and therefore it's going to protect the public better," said Sgt. Carla Burr with the Amarillo Police Department. "If we are better able to communicate with each other and communicate with other agencies, if there's something major that happens then we can communicate that better."

Although fire and police are the first to go online, all local agencies plan to be integrated into the system.

On Thursday, all of the city's EMS services will be signing on.

"Our partner agencies that provide EMS service in the community as well as the emergency rooms will be on this system," said Starbuck. "We will also be working with Amarillo College, with Northwest Texas hospital, with BSA Hospital, with VA Hospital,  so eventually all three of them will be on the system."

Other agencies will be joining the system in the future.

"As we move closer to the school year, Amarillo ISD will be coming onto the system. Potter County has been a partner with us on this project from early on in the project," said Starbuck. "They will be moving onto the system in August, which will include some additional towers that will even improve the coverage of the system that much more. In the fall we'll be moving all the non-public safety departments onto the system."

Early next year, Randall County is going to build a system that will compliment Amarillo's.

While the waiting game plays out, contingency plans are in place. On the first day the AFD was live, it used a contingency plan while fighting a grass fire.

"Texas Forest Service doesn't run on a digital system. So we had to basically on the fly use the contingency plan and go to a different zone so we could get on the VHF inter-op," said Phillip Thomas, District Chief Communications for the Amarillo Fire Department. "Basically everybody on scene had to go on a VHF inter-op channel so that Texas Forest Services could communicate with us. It worked out well. Changing zones on the fly is not something we normally do at all, but it seemed to work out."

Amarillo Fire says by having five different channels, it allows dispatchers to section off channels and have plenty of space open for any incident that could arise.

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