PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Platteville first responders and maintenance crews are struggling to communicate as signal interference increases across radio frequencies used by city staff and dispatchers.

In a recent report addressed to the Platteville Common Council, staff warned that if the problem continues to worsen, the safety of first responders and residents could be jeopardized.

“We have to start looking at updates and improvements for our radio system,” Fire Chief Ryan Simmons said.

The interference has grown in the past year and is impacting Platteville’s fire, police, streets and sewer departments, whose staff use the same communications network.

They believe the problem stems from signal interference caused by the proliferation of wireless technology, including cellular phones and routers.

Public Works Director Howard Crofoot likened the situation to whispering in a library versus a city street.

“Ten to 15 years ago, the background noise is like what you hear in a library. If we had handheld walkie-talkies, that’s just like a whisper,” he said. “If you’re whispering in a library, you can hear pretty well because there’s not much noise in a library, but if you’re out on a city street and the background noise is a lot higher, you can’t whisper anymore.”

Staff said sometimes transmissions sound garbled. Other times, they hear silence. The degree to which interference occurs depends on their location in the city.

As a workaround, responders use cellphones, which poses problems when staff need to communicate with multiple parties simultaneously.

Other times, they return to their vehicles, which are outfitted with more powerful radios that can break through the noise.

“When we respond to the incidents, we try to stay and use our bigger radios as long as we can,” Simmons said.

But vehicle radios are not always available during emergencies.

“We had an incident earlier this spring when we had an officer wrestling with a subject near the extreme west end of the city,” said Lt. Josh Grabandt, of the Platteville Police Department, referring to a March 11 case that involved a juvenile. “They were on their portable radio, and they were not able to radio for help because it was not transmitting properly. They were attempting to, but dispatch could not contact them, and they could not contact dispatch.”

Additional officers were sent to the scene only after the officer did not respond to a status check.

Platteville’s emergency communications system operates separately from outlying communities. Most use Grant County’s network, which also experiences signal interference due to the county’s hilly topography and aging equipment.

Crofoot said city staff plan to meet with multiple vendors to diagnose the city’s problem.

They are considering whether to order a radio coverage study, to purchase more powerful radios or to install repeaters, which could relay transmissions across greater distances.

He said a cost has not been determined, but he anticipates the council will discuss the matter in the fall as it assembles the 2022 city budget.

Council Member Ken Kilian said he needs more information concerning the situation but that it should be addressed.

“If it’s needed, then I think it’s something that would go into the budget,” he said. “It’s something that is very necessary as a service to the people.”

Council President Barb Daus anticipates the council will discuss the matter in the coming months after the scope of the problem is defined.

“Communication is incredibly important,” she said. “At this point in time, we know there are some issues, but we don’t really know what the potential solutions are, nor do we know what the dollars are associated with that.”

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