A Decade In, Pima County’s Wireless Emergency System Remains a Success

A dramatic car chase from Marana to South Tucson on Jan. 18 ended with the successful capture of a homicide suspect from San Diego, thanks in part to Pima County’s high-tech emergency communications system.  

San Diego police had tracked the suspect to the Walmart on Cortaro Road, then alerted local authorities to her presence. When the suspect saw police cars approaching, she took off down Interstate 10. After a chase, a tire deflation device was used to stop her vehicle and she was taken into custody. 

During the incident, all agencies involved — from the Arizona Department of Public Safety to the Marana Police Department — were able to communicate instantly through the Pima County Wireless Integrated Network, which enables its members to converse on a single radio system.   

The system launched in March 2014, but it had been in the works for more than a decade, sparked by conversations about how to improve emergency communications in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

If emergency responders from different jurisdictions needed to talk to each other during a crisis, there wasn’t an easy way for them to do that, said PCWIN Executive Director Robert Meredith.  

“Under the old system, everybody would just be doing their own thing and not be able to talk to each other as quickly,” he said. “Because of PCWIN, they’re now able to respond quickly and coordinate their efforts.”  

PCWIN’s vast radio network stretches across all of Pima County, from the slopes of Mount Lemmon to the remote reaches of the desert near Ajo. Nearly 70 agencies participate in the system, including hospitals, police and fire departments, school districts, federal agencies and even national parks.  

More than 9,000 radios are connected to the network, allowing nearly every emergency responder in Pima County to talk to each other in real time whenever they need to.  

Pima County voters approved $92 million in bonds for PCWIN in 2004, but planning and building the system took nearly a decade. It was a formidable task, considering the sheer size of Pima County and the enormous mountain ranges that threatened to interfere with radio signals.  

Officials had to make arrangements with the owners of the land the towers were built on, and take precautions to prevent outages from interfering with communication during an emergency.  

“The tower system was designed with a lot of redundancies to ensure that service isn’t interrupted,” Meredith said. “If any particular tower site were to get hit by lightning, other towers that overlap those service areas could provide support.”  

A committee made up of leaders from different emergency agencies spent countless hours working out the details of the new system — how it would run, how it would be funded.  

“Thankfully they did all of that work then, so we can enjoy a well-running machine now,” Meredith said.  

The underlying radio system infrastructure was provided by Motorola, which now uses PCWIN as a case study of a successful emergency communications system. Rather than using taxpayer dollars, the system is funded by a subscriber fee.  

“We run like a business,” Meredith said. “As long as we are fiscally responsible, this system will continue to serve the community.”  

PCWIN’s small staff is divided into two teams. One manages the tower sites and the radio network, while the other provides maintenance services for subscribers. All agencies’ radios are tested at least once a year.  

“If one of the agencies has a bad battery or a broken radio, they’ll bring it to our shop,” Meredith said. “We have developed pretty close relationships with all those agencies.”  

A typical day might include anything from conducting drone inspections of the tower sites to holding a training exercise for an agency.  

“We make up emergency scenarios to test our ability to communicate,” Meredith said. “After the fact, we all get together to talk about how well we did and how we can improve our response.”  

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