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Radio network puts amateurs in dark

System linking police uses digital signal scanners can't read

By Robert Sanchez
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer

HIGHLANDS RANCH A digital network that could link every police and fire agency in the state has left amateur radio operators worried they'll be cut off because they can't access the system.

The current $75 million network — which has been running for two years — was touted Thursday at the Colorado sheriff's headquarters near Highlands Ranch as the country's only radio system that plans to join emergency agencies.

Officials from more than 10 municipalities signed a cooperative agreement at the headquarters that allows the network's board of directors to create usage guidelines.

By 2005, emergency officials throughout the state will be able to access each other on the same frequency via a main station at the Douglas County Justice Center in Castle Rock, allowing quick communication during natural disasters or emergencies such as the shootings at Columbine High School.

"We've immediately seen that this is a much better and more efficient way to handle situations," said Randy Smith, information services director for Jefferson County, which joined Douglas County nearly two years ago on the network.

Portions of every metro-area county, the Colorado State Patrol and the Colorado Department of Transportation are using the system now.

This year, the digital network will cover the northeast part of the state, and plans will begin for southeast Colorado. Counties bordering New Mexico will be integrated by 2004.

State officials estimate the Motorola radios that hook into the system are about $3,000 each, though the cost could be slashed in half once they become more popular.

But those who operate scanners for fun worry they won't be able to pursue their hobby until digital scanners become available for everyday residents. Scanners on the market today can't read digital signals.

"For now, we're going to be shut out," said Mark Patton, 21, an Aurora resident who began using scanners in 1999 and estimates it will cost him $1,000 to purchase a digital one. "I feel sorry for small fire departments that'll have to pay all that money just to buy a few radios or risk being shut out like us."

Lt. Michael Coleman, the Douglas County Sheriff's communication manager, said it would take time before digital scanners are introduced.

January 12, 2001

Denver Rocky Mountain News