With a simple turn of a knob on their radio devices, more than 30 public-safety agencies — including the Tucson Police and Fire departments, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department and seven county hospitals — have the ability to communicate with one another during emergencies now that the county’s regional communication system and center have been completed.

The Pima County Wireless Integrated Network and the Pima Emergency Communications and Operations Center, both bond-funded projects, have been in the works since 2001. That’s when the 9/11 attacks prompted a discussion among officials about the need for all first responders to be able to easily communicate with one another.

What the project INCLUDES
  • A new midtown communications center is the dispatch center for the Sheriff’s Department, the Sahuarita Police Department and six fire agencies. It also serves as a backup center for the Tucson Police and Fire departments.
  • The Pima County Emergency Operations Center is also housed at the communications facility. It has four breakout rooms and more than 60 work stations, allowing several agencies to coordinate during a major emergency.
  • Upgrades were made to the city’s Thomas O. Price Service Center, which also can serve as a backup for the county’s dispatch center.
  • Construction or improvement of 28 radio/microwave sites were made.
  • The communications network was made of new and legacy microwave and fiber-network components.
  • Also included: a state-of-the-art radio system that includes mobile, portable and desktop radios for emergency personnel.
How much it cost

In 2004, 60 percent of voters in Pima County approved $92 million in bonds for the project.

An additional $13 million in federal grants and other funding sources also was obtained.

The project came in under budget, and leftover money is being used for the second phase.

In that phase, infrastructure for radio coverage throughout the Tohono O’odham Nation will be provided.

How it’s been used

The new system’s ability to allow agencies to communicate directly with each other already has been used twice recently.

  • The Drexel Heights Fire District used it to communicate with Rural/Metro emergency services, and the Tohono O’odham Nation Fire Department used it to coordinate efforts for a crash on Interstate 19.
  • The Oro Valley Police Department, Pima Regional SWAT, Pima Regional Bomb Squad and the Golder Ranch Fire District used the system to talk to each other during a recent hostage situation.
How it affects public

The general public will not experience anything different with the new system. Emergencies should still be called in to 911. Scanning equipment used to hear radio communications may need to be upgraded or reprogrammed to pick up dispatches on new frequencies.

What officials say

The inability of first responders to communicate with each other was a serious problem here and around the country, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said.

“We looked at how the situation was being handled, and it pointed out a serious problem in public safety, and that was communication,” Dupnik said.

Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chris Nanos said the new system has been met with a positive response from personnel in the field.

“The radio is our lifeline, as they say in the streets, and that is so true. And because of the clarity and the coverage, the cops in the street are tickled pink,” he said.

Larry Hecker, who was the chairman of the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee, said the project is an example of the power of collaborative work.

“This proves that when we do work together, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish,” he said.

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at vcruz@azstarnet.com or 573-4224.