STONINGTON — When First Selectman Rob Simmons took the helm as chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners in 1986, the town was littered with "dead zones" that made it difficult for town police officers to communicate with one another.
In some areas, Simmons said, it was so bad that officers were left to rely on backup that was "literally a phone on a pole" in order to connect with dispatchers at times.
"The weather impacted it, the location impacted it; it was well-kept secret that we really didn't want getting out there," Simmons said. "Now, our officers are able to talk with one another clear across the state when needed, and soon possibly further."
The Stonington Police Department last week held a ceremony to celebrate the launch of its new radio system, a $1.3 million project nearly two years in the making. Officials said the new system will not only improve communications — it has already proven effective in eliminating a dead zone on Barn Island, for example — but it has the potential to save the town money and further enhance valuable regional partnerships in the years to come.
Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson said that as a result of an agreement with the state Department of Emergency Services, the town installed state-of-the art equipment on its radio tower and purchased portable and mobile radio units for officers and the department's cruisers.
The radios represented the largest expense, approximately $800,000 through Motorola after the town was able to negotiate down the costs, while the town was able to update equipment on its existing radio tower to help further reduce costs.
As part of an agreement with the state, Olson said the town would be responsible for maintaining that tower equipment, but also noted that the state is responsible for providing advance notice for any expensive upgrades to allow for proper planning.
The purchase was initially approved by the town's Board of Finance in February 2018, Police Chief J. Darren Stewart said during the ceremony, and is the largest single purchase made by the department other than the police headquarters itself.
Olson said when compared to the other options, however, choosing to tie in to the state system was "really a no-brainer."
"If we were looking at a stand-alone system for the town, it would have required more than the one tower and more maintenance. With some of those systems, we were looking at costs upward of $5 (million) to potentially $8 million," Olson said.
A third option, to try and partner with a neighbor or tie into a regional system, would also have required a lot of the stand-alone costs while still not providing the benefit of connecting to the statewide system, officials said.
The department was aided in reviewing options by staff with Marcus Communications, a consulting firm based in Manchester, Conn., and Olson credited them with providing the town with details that led officials to learn about the option to partner with the state.
Olson said that thanks to the responsive nature of state officials, who expressed interest in tying in to address dead zones that also impacted state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection staff, and Stewart's knowledge of the state application and reporting process, the town was also able to complete the project with virtually no red tape or roadblocks along the way.
The system officially went live on May 19, which allowed officers to communicate more freely and even test the product during the Mystic Half Marathon. Olson said the results did not disappoint.
There are still a few kinks to work out, including adjusting to using standard language rather than police code that may vary from department to department, but that adjustments can be made easy enough and without impacting response.
"This was the lowest-cost option and it provided the best opportunity and flexibility, both for Stonington and for the state," Olson said. "It's been a win-win for everyone."
As the town looks at future efforts, both Olson and Simmons said they are looking toward using the system to collaborate more frequently and efficiently with surrounding communities — the Town of Groton recently tied into the state system as well — and possibly even across state lines into Rhode Island and New York.
Olson said the town is already discussing opportunities with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, noting that the community already partners with Westerly and other southwestern Rhode Island towns per mutual aid agreements.
"We're excited to see where we can go from here," he said.