Thousands of Kansas University fans flocked to downtown Lawrence in celebration of Elite Eight and Final Four victories earlier this spring.
In preparation, teams of law enforcement officers stood at various points along the street, interacting with the crowd and dealing with problems caused by a handful of unruly fans.
In addition to Lawrence police and Douglas County Sheriff’s officers on duty, Kansas Highway Patrol troopers and other area officers assisted as part of a plan that was months in the works. But it was not seamless setting everything up, especially as organizers tried to ensure officers were on the same radio frequency.
“We had over 250 officers from around the region in town, and we have challenges with other jurisdictions that were on a different system,” said Scott Ruf, director of Douglas County emergency communications.
City and county leaders are eyeing a $6 million to $7 million upgrade to the local emergency radio communications system, mostly because of outdated technology, lack of system capacity and state and federal mandates. Local public safety officials are recommending that county commissioners grant them authority to continue formal negotiations with Motorola Communications to implement the change.
One part of the recommendation is to expand Douglas County’s aging 911 radio system into one the Kansas Department of Transportation uses, which would be beneficial for responses such as the downtown Final Four celebrations or other events like a natural disaster response.
“In the future, we would move to an event channel, and we would just patch everybody to the same channel,” Ruf said.
The upgrade would expand the county’s radio capacity, Ruf said, and it would alleviate other issues with the current system that include the difficulty police and firefighters have communicating with one another.
The process comprises several steps, including figuring out how to pay for it. Under an agreement to fund operations of the emergency communications center, the city pays 66 percent and the county pays 34 percent, but that agreement does not technically cover capital improvements.
“We are working with the county on a multiyear financing plan to pay the city of Lawrence’s share of this cost,” City Manager David Corliss said.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug said conversations between the city and county were ongoing, and he’s hopeful they can reach an agreement in the next few weeks.
Separate from the financing, Ruf said he planned soon to ask county commissioners for permission to enter more detailed negotiations with Motorola Communications.
Ruf said once the new system is in place, anyone who has a capable digital radio scanner should be able to hear law enforcement and medical traffic. According to news reports, as Shawnee County officials have worked on a radio upgrade, they have considered encrypting their new network. That could restrict what the public could hear in certain situations.
But Ruf said encryption has not been discussed in Douglas County. Under the current system, he said, agencies in Douglas County do have one small “encrypted talk group” or channel that is used for special operations on a case by case basis.
“There is no plan at this time to encrypt the new radio system,” Ruf said. “However, there is a need for some level of encryption for certain public safety functions.”