Santa Fe's fire and police will this year see a shiny new digital system to replace their creaky analog radios, which are 17 years old, reaching the end of their working lives and increasingly at risk of failure.

The emergency responders say it's long past due.

A joint effort between the city and Santa Fe County, the project will cost $1.7 million in total. The city's share of the bill is about $1.2 million, covering a broadcast tower, updates at the dispatch center and radios in each vehicle, as well as on the hips of every first responder. The county will pay just over $500,000 to install radios in its units.

Every first response vehicle in the city will receive a new onboard radio, along with new portable radios for every fire fighter and police officer in Santa Fe
Every first response vehicle in the city will receive a new onboard radio, along with new portable radios for every fire fighter and police officer in Santa Fe | Will Costello

Repeaters on the old system, which connect first responders to the radio channels they use to communicate with dispatchers and colleagues, have begun to fail. When that happens, Fire Chief Paul Babcock tells SFR that a central computer kicks in to find a new channel to avoid a delay in response times. It's still worrisome, he says, and the problem is expected to continue to worsen until the new system is in place.

The goal, Babcock says, is to get it up and running by the end of the year, and that it's coming not a moment too soon.

The previous setup is so outdated that even fixing it can pose a challenge, and Motorola, the manufacturer of the old system, will cease support for the old model entirely at the end of 2020.

"If something were to fail and that replacement part is not available, they sometimes have to reach out to eBay and stuff to try to find these parts because the support's not there any longer," he says.

Motorola is also the vendor selling the new system.

If the new project weren't met with the approval of City Council, according to a city memo, every first responder in the city would end up using the backup system, which has only one channel.

Even before Motorola ceases support for the system, radios that old can pose a risk of failure at inopportune times, Babcock tells SFR, potentially resulting in dispatchers being unable to reach units at the station to alert them to calls.

This 17 year old analog radio system is increasingly prone to failure
This 17 year old analog radio system is increasingly prone to failure | Will Costello

Another concern among firefighters is that, after being dispatched to a scene, radios could fail and communication could be cut off. Such miscommunications can put responders or citizens in danger should critical information about the situation, like a hostile resident or one with a medical issue, go unheard.

Assistant Fire Chief Carlos Nava tells SFR that after the unit is dispatched, more work is happening in the background as the fire engine or ambulance is speeding its way to the scene, and good radios are a necessity for passing new information along.

"Prior to us getting there, they can call us and say, 'Hey guys, heads up, why don't you guys hold back a little bit—there's a hazard warning at this house. Something's happened in the past, let's make sure everything's safe.'"

Nava adds that, because law enforcement uses the same system that the fire department does, they can quickly communicate with both each other and dispatch to determine if someone in a situation requiring fire or emergency medical response has an outstanding arrest warrant and respond appropriately.

"We're putting our firefighters in a big danger if we don't have a top-of-the-line updated system," Babcock says.

He told a story from 2001, during his field days, to emphasize the point.

"A partner of mine and myself were in a building, a residential structure, and the roof collapsed on us, snapped my leg, and my partner firefighter had to call out a mayday," Babcock says. "Without the communication of that mayday that my partner was able to call out, I would have been trapped under debris, in a burning building, underwater, with no way to remove myself. Without that communication, all this ends."

The chief also points out that while $1.7 million might seem high, estimates for the new system were initially as lofty as $10 million, but were brought lower in part by negotiation and a state pricing agreement. In addition, while the tower that will transmit the signal is under the city's jurisdiction, and therefore on its bill, the rest of the costs will be split down the middle with Santa Fe County. The city's bill is set to come out of the gross receipts tax bond, a 2018 measure intended to fund various infrastructure projects across the city.

Other departments such as transit and parks and recreation will be able to use the new system, too, but the fast response and clear communication by emergency services is the main goal, according to the Fire Department.

"We're very excited about this, the project is way overdue," Babcock says.