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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison gets static over radio system
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Balles: 'All we're asking for is to have the same capacity.'
Balles: 'All we're asking for is to have the same capacity.'

The city of Madison has been getting the blame for tripping up the process of building a new county emergency radio system by demanding at least 22 channels, which will cost an extra $800,000.

"The city wants 22 channels instead of 18," grouses County Board chair Scott McDonell. "I don't think they've made the case for that."

The county must replace its current radio system by the end of 2012 to comply with federal regulations. It's pledged to pay $30 million toward a new system, which will unify existing systems throughout the county. But it wants municipalities to share the $1.6 million annual upkeep cost, and several of them have voted against doing so. Under the new system, there would be two interoperable systems: an 18-channel system for Madison and suburbs and a 12-channel system for the rest of the county.

Madison Police Capt. Joe Balles, commander of the South District, bristles at the criticism the city has received for demanding at least 22 channels. "Somebody's thinking we're putting leather seats in the Cadillac and we don't need them," he says. "All we're asking for is to have the same capacity."

Balles says Madison has spent more than $10 million over the last two decades building its existing 23-channel system. "The county hasn't done anything for so many years."

John Dejung, the county's new 911 director, says 18 channels are plenty for Madison: "We shouldn't be charging the taxpayers for more than we need. If money was no object, of course you'd want to have more than you need."

Balles thinks that's the wrong way to go. "You don't build a communication system for everyday use," he says. "You build it for the worst day." In an extreme situation like a natural disaster, when lots of people will be trying to communicate, the system must be able to support the maximum number of radios.

Dejung says studies show that, on even its busiest day, the 18-channel system would have only one in 1,000 calls not go through because of high traffic.

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