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Radio problems added to confusion at crime scene 12/06/00 By LAURA CASSELS Respond to this story

THOMASVILLE -- Gaps in radio communication between law-enforcement officers at the scene of a murder Sunday added stress but did not hinder the officers' work, a Thomas County sheriff's captain said Tuesday.

"It was troublesome communicating with each other," said John Richards, chief operations officer with the Thomas County Sheriff's Department. "It didn't prevent us from doing our job."

At a press conference Sunday in the wake of a murder and a suicide involving domestic violence, Richards told reporters that three teams of special officers were not able to communicate efficiently while preparing to enter a Hawks Lane home where Tony Phillips, 24, was shot to death and his mother kidnapped by her estranged husband, who later fatally shot himself.

On Tuesday, Richards said the radio problems were aggravating but did not contribute significantly to a delay in entering the home, where Phillips was found dead after being shot three times in the abdomen and once in a thigh.

Richards said officers who first responded to the scene had been told a gunman had broken into the home to kidnap his wife, that Phillips was inside, too, and that shots had been fired. Richards said he called for the city-county Strategic Response Team to take the lead in the explosive situation.

"That's an hour," Richards said. "Once at the scene, I provided them the information I had and they devised a tactical plan to enter the house with a minimum loss of life."

The officers did not know the gunman and his wife had left the home nor who, if anyone, had been shot.

The delay in reaching Phillips was unavoidable, Richards said, because of the unknowns and the high risk of provoking more gunfire when storming a hostage situation without being able to instantly disarm the gunman.

The radio communications problem is one that emergency personnel in Thomas County cope with daily, ever since Thomas County upgraded to an 800-megahertz trunking system. Richards and others said the system, bought eight years ago in a sale of equipment used in the Atlanta Olympics, was an excellent buy but the coverage -- using only one transmission tower -- has "dead spots" that can be cured only by erecting two more towers. The cost is estimated at $1 million each.

Some personnel, chiefly volunteer firefighters, use VHF hand-held radios that are not compatible with the 800-megahertz system. The communication consoles at the 911 center also are not compatible with the system, though they are patched together.

Furthermore, the wattage of hand-held radios is too low to reach far without being near a transmission tower.

What that all means is that emergency communications often are littered with garble and blackouts.

Jack Smith, executive director of the Emergency Services Agency, said new sales-tax revenue (collections begin next month) will finance upgrades in consoles and software that will vastly improve communications countywide. However, the shortage of towers will still leave dead spots.

"We realize we have a coverage problem and have since the system was put in," Smith said. "Additional tower sites are needed. The problem with that is they're at least $750,000 apiece."

Smith said the ESA is shopping for ways to finance construction of new towers, such as pooling with neighboring counties and seeking grants.

Communications engineers were assigned last month to find ways to pull the piecemeal components together more effectively, possibly without erecting more towers.

"The ESA is addressing the problem," Smith said. "We're looking for every possible alternative."

Meanwhile, Richards said emergency personnel fear that the weakest link in the system -- low-wattage handheld radios in dead spots -- may leave an officer in danger outside his or her vehicle with no means of getting help.

"One day, an officer's going to be in trouble ... and won't be able to communicate," Richards said.

The Sheriff's Department has proposed a "Band-Aid" remedy of buying more VHF hand-held radios and car-mounted amplifiers until a broader solution is achieved.

"Anything we do short of putting up some new tower sites will be a Band-Aid," Richards said.

-- Doris (, December 06, 2000

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