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Improving emergency communication: Sheriff’s office switches to VIPER radio system

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Communications between deputies and officers from other law enforcement agencies should get easier thanks to a new system in place at the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.

The new Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders communications system includes 800-megahertz radios, radio console upgrades and other equipment. The sheriff’s office made the switch from analog to the new 800-megahertz system at the end of August.

“It’s technology at its best,” said Sheriff Calvin Woodard. “This is putting us in the 21st century.”

The VIPER system helps deputies communicate directly with other law enforcement agencies instead of going through 911 operators. It also gives deputies clear signals in parts of the county that were otherwise spotty. There were areas in the county where deputies couldn’t receive signals.

Woodard said the new VIPER system not only boosts communications with other agencies, but it is valuable in potential crisis situations and everyday calls.

‘CRYSTAL CLEAR’

Deputies have already noticed a significant difference while using the new system and radios.

“It’s almost like someone is sitting in the car with you or as if the person is standing next to you,” Woodard said, referring to the signal strength. “You can hear it crystal clear.”

All 107 sheriff’s office vehicles, including patrol and special units, are equipped with the new system and radios.

The VIPER system is managed by the N.C. State Highway Patrol under the N.C. Department of Public Safety and serves all emergency responders, according to state officials. It’s a system that law enforcement agencies are going toward, officials have said. The county purchased the roughly $1 million equipment so that the sheriff’s office would be able to communicate on one system at the local, state and federal levels.

“To go digital, it would have cost just as much as going 800-megahertz, and you still wouldn’t have been able to communicate with other agencies,” Woodard said.

The state’s Department of Public Safety handles labor costs, maintenance and computer service upgrades to the VIPER system with no cost to the county throughout the life of the system.

‘IT MADE A COMPLETE DIFFERENCE’

Woodard said prior to the new VIPER system, deputies who were on the farthest side of the county dealt with coverage issues.

“Prior to this, you could call on the handheld, and it would never go out,” Woodard said, adding that some coverage would go in and out posing communication issues. He said others might only hear bits and pieces of information in real time, and deputies would have to repeat themselves to ensure they were heard. In a recent high-speed chase that went into Edgecombe County, the new radio system worked like a charm.

“It made a complete difference,” Woodard said. “Usually when we go out of Wilson County radio traffic, especially on N.C. 42 East gets choppy. They didn’t have to repeat anything. Everybody was on the same page.”

Woodard said if a traumatic event were to occur, deputies will now be able to switch over to an event channel and talk with other agencies directly.

The Wilson Police Department also uses the VIPER system.

Officials said the system also ensures safety for deputies and provides better service to residents.

“It’s just a great tool to have,” he said.

DETENTION CENTER AND COURTHOUSE

The handheld radios patrol deputies were using before are now being used at the Wilson County Detention Center. They were able to switch out the old detention radios for the newer patrol radios, which are more durable and only a few years old. Woodard said that small change has enhanced communications in the detention center as well as the courthouse.

MAKING IT POSSIBLE

Woodard said the department has been able to offset costs as well, including a savings of roughly $282,000, by not having to pay a prior radio maintenance fee, and because of a bulk discount on the older radio equipment and the potential grant of about $73,500 over a three-year period from the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission. Woodard said he was grateful to county commissioners who agreed to finance the project during last year’s budget as well as County Manager Denise Stinagle and the management team whose members made it possible.

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