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  • PCWIN celebrates five years of safety, success

    Feb 21, 2019 | Read More News
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    Emergency service providers were early adopters of two-way radio systems, which allowed them to deliver better and faster services in the communities they serve. But even as emergency service agencies incorporated radios into their work and adapted with new innovations, agencies’ needs would inevitably surpass the technology’s capabilities. 
    After five years at full operation, almost every emergency response agency in the region has joined the Pima County Wireless Integrated Network (PCWIN). In that time, PCWIN has provided the technological leap in critical communications that first responders needed. The network enables public safety and public service agencies from every region of the County to talk to each other by radio in real time on a single system, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.

    Pima County voters approved $60 million in 2004 general obligation bond funding to construct the emergency communications network.

    “What PCWIN has done for us in law enforcement is make the world a little smaller and our unified response possible,” said Byron Gwaltney, Chief Deputy with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department

    Before the completion of PCWIN, public safety and other agencies were mostly unable to communicate with one another directly over radio networks because each agency maintained its own analog communications system. Even when responding to the same emergency, disparate agencies frequently lacked the ability to have radio communications with one another. install

    Among the many major incidents Gwaltney has responded to was the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting where six people were killed and then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was among those injured. He was the incident commander for the Sheriff’s Department response. 

    “Prior to PCWIN and our interoperable communications capabilities we relied on being in the same physical location as our other first responder counterparts,” Gwaltney said.  “While this worked some of the time, it was not always possible in the unincorporated areas of Pima County.  Historically, we would lose valuable operational time working on establishing unified command operations in a single physical location.”

    It wasn’t only law enforcement agencies that suffered limited communications capabilities under old systems. Fire agencies also had to endure the technological limitations and often find creative work arounds. 

    “Before PCWIN, communications between agencies was beyond limited,” said Doug Chappell, Chief of the Drexel Heights Fire District. “We couldn’t communicate with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, who we work with minute-by-minute on major incidents.”

    A multi-agency response often meant communicating with other on-scene agencies in person and even using hand signals. Drexel Heights was able to alleviate some of their communications troubles with a neighboring fire district it frequently worked with by having firefighters carry separate radios that worked on the same frequency as the other agency. 

    But even that wasn’t an ideal solution because it required maintenance of two separate, aged communications systems.

    “Most of us had very old, outdated equipment, and were faced with very substantial bandwidth issues without PCWIN,” Chappell said. “This is a Countywide radio network that works.” 

    Not only can Drexel Height communicate directly with the Sheriff’s Department, and all the agencies on the network, they have moved their dispatch unit into the shared County Pima Emergency Communications and Operations Center. 

    With a unified, Countywide, digital communications network, all of the old communications limitations have vanished. Having a Countywide system serves not just the urban core of the Tucson metro region, but also is of critical importance in the rural areas where emergency services may be miles away. 

    “In the western portions of the County there are wide expanses of land with many rural communities,” said Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, whose district extends west to the Yuma County boundary. “Prior to PCWIN, emergency communications were limited in these areas. With PCWIN in place, these residents and the emergency responders who serve them benefit from the same modern communications system as the urban populations. PCWIN has helped to greatly improve the emergency response capabilities and public safety in the rural areas.” 

    PCWIN is governed by a Cooperative of member agencies. The governing board and committees meet regularly to develop policy and chart a strategic vision for interoperable communication in Pima County. Member agencies share in the collaborative effort to enhance communication. 

    The fully operational PCWIN system operates with 44 partner agencies in local, regional and national governments. In addition, 17 County departments, all the area hospitals and many emergency transport services also use the network. 

    PCWIN maintains nearly 8,000 individual radios on which nearly 25 million annual calls are made. The network has a 12-person staff and an annual budget of $3.1 million. Member agencies pay subscription and optional per-radio maintenance fees.  

    “All 63 County public safety agencies and supporting public service departments have benefited from the instant, seamless radio communications PCWIN provides,” said Rick Brown, PCWIN Executive Director.  Along with the 11 federal and state public safety interoperability partners, the network has forged a joint collaboration and enforcement effort with no boundaries.”